Agnès Varda in Californialand
A blonde walks in the street, sporting fashionable sunglasses; the image is in black and white, yet has a very contemporary feel. Maybe it’s the elegant physical freedom with which the woman walks, maybe it’s the gaze of various passers-by that is directed at her, covertly or not, and to which she is oblivious (she has more important things to think about). Behind her, some signs in French; we must be in Paris. Then the woman stops and gazes back at us. A glimmer of recognition: this is the actress Corinne Marchand, the heroine of Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962), Agnès Varda’s famous mise en abyme of the male gaze (among other things), in a sequence excerpted to make the trailer of the 2013 AFI Fest Presented by Audi. Bar none the most charismatic, energetic, opinionated and, at 85 years old, the most legendary of the guest artistic curators invited by the Festival, the indomitable Varda, with her signature purple Capuchin monk hairdo, and in the company of her daughter and close collaborator Rosalie Varda, landed in Los Angeles – a city she loves. She had lived there first in the late 1960s, then in the early 1980s, and wove the many friendships that are celebrated in the party scene shot on Venice Beach in Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès, 2008). She likes to say that she and husband Jacques Demy, who had signed a deal with Columbia to make Model Shop (1969) – generally acknowledged as one of the most thoughtful representations of Los Angeles at the time – missed Paris in May 1968, but instead experienced the California counter-culture (flower children and political radicalism).
During a trip in the Bay are, and thanks to Tom Luddy, Varda reconnected with a long-lost member of her Greek family, a hippie painter, and made him the subject of a short film, Oncle Yanco (1967); then she directed Black Panthers – Huey! (1968), about the Free Huey rally held on February 17 in Oakland, that contains precious now-archival footage of Panther leaders such as Bobby Seale, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Eldridge Cleaver and Ron Dellums. This was followed by Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969), a joyful valentine to “living in rented houses” and to the alternative lifestyle (sex, drugs, plastic flowers and swimming pools) that flourished in Los Angeles. A radiant Viva, haloed with her aura of Warholian superstar, shares her heart and body with Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the two stars and authors of the hugely successful rock musical Hair (premiered Off-Broadway in 1967), while news of the assassination of Robert Kennedy appear on television. Cinematic figures, playing themselves, come and go: Shirley Clarke, who was teaching at UCLA at the time; the too-soon-departed Cuban film critic Carlos Clarens (1930-87), at the peak of his curly-haired youthful beauty; the iconic Eddie Constantine; Peter Bogdanovich; risk-taking theatre chain owner Max Laemmle. In its playfulness, the film functions like a time capsule, a dimension Varda was well aware of when the curators of LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) contacted her to organise an exhibition of her artwork. (1) As Lion’s Love is being restored, (2) she brought an old print of the film to build a shack (cabane) in the museum, using every single frame (The Beaches of Agnès/Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008 documents the making of a similar cabane from a print of Les Créatures/The Creatures, 1969). One Sunday afternoon, having invited her friends, Varda was “receiving” inside the translucent cabane where you could recognise entire sequences of the film hanging over your head, or making the celluloid wall by your side. Bernardo Bertolucci, who was North American premiering the 3D version of The Last Emperor (1987) came for a visit, as well as a surprisingly young-looking George Chakiris (who had played Etienne, one of the “carnies” in Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort/The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967). (3) So it was not one page, but multiple pages of cinema history that unfolded as Varda was running from one side of the other of Los Angeles, introducing films, giving masterclasses in universities, escaping her handlers to film a Mexican market in the streets of downtown Los Angeles, spending quality time in her beloved Venice, and even being a guest filmmaker at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.
For the AFI, Varda has selected a program not of films that influenced her, but that mattered to her (“when I wrote and shot my first film in 1954, La Pointe courte, I had hardly seen ten films… If I had seen the masterpieces that I discovered later, I certainly would not have dared to create a film at 26”, she said): (4) Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Die Ehe de Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979), Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Yet the pieces de resistance were Varda’s own work, such as Documenteur – An Emotion Picture (1981), an intimate piece alluding to a personal crisis, shot during her second stay in California – at about the same time as the better-known Mur Murs, her splendid documentary on street murals. We’re back in the world of rented dwelling – a dissension per se against the classical “American dream” (a place in the sun, a house of one’s own) – but sans swimming pool. A French woman (film editor Sabine Manou) having just split with her husband and scattered her belongings in the houses of various acquaintances, moves from a guest bedroom at a friend’s place to a modest place in Venice, her 8 year-old son (Mathieu Demy) in tow. She works as a factotum/assistant for an absentee movie star (suggested, off-screen, by Delphine Seyrig’s inimitable, sensuous voice), and tries to get her footing, emotionally, after the break-up.
A restored copy of Cléo was also screened, allowing new generations to discover this superb film, and for the rest of us, to revisit it. My favourite scene would be the moment when Cléo, the spoilt, temperamental and insecure pop singer waiting for a medical verdict about a possible cancer, enters the sculptor Coururier’s workshop, a modest courtyard building in Paris’s 14th quarter. (5) The students are working on large nudes made of rough white plaster. At the centre, turning her back to the camera, a model is posing, her hair up, showing her profile, her clasped hands in her right buttock, her left foot slightly lifted: she is both a mythological (Greek) figure, and the ultimate object of the gaze. The camera turns around her body, revealing the students (including two women) completely absorbed in their task; a couple of them, however, instead of looking at the model or his/her work curiously stares at Cléo off-screen. Then Varda brilliantly reshuffles the cards. The model (Dorothée Blank) turns her head in the direction of the camera/Cléo, and speaks: “Salut!” We cut to a shoulder shot of Cléo, silently acknowledging her friend’s greeting, then to a shoulder shot of the nude Dorothée, making a series of comical faces, while we hear her internal monologue: “Cléo’s come here. She’s so kind, so pretty.” Simultaneously, one of the intertitles that have announced each chapter of the film appears: “Dorothée from 5:52 to 6:00 PM.”
Dorothée unceremoniously slips inside a patterned summer dress (without bothering with underwear) and gets her fee from Couturier. The sculptor addresses her as “mon petit” (“little one”) or “beauté” – and later, her lover, the projectionist Raoul, calls her “ma poupée” (“my doll”) or “bijou” (“precious”). Varda, who had already made a sensual and delightful use of Blank’s naked body in L’Opéra-Mouffe (1957), knew both the actress’s intelligence and the fine line she was walking in terms of her own objectification. (6) Blank’s luminous performance is one of the highlights of the film, (7) and, more at peace with herself than Cléo, she is the one who formulates the most incisive statement about her relationship to the male gaze, when she explains how little posing in the nude bothers her: “My body makes me happy, not proud. They’re looking at more than just me. A shape, an idea. It is as if I wasn’t there. Like I was asleep. And I get paid for it.” She has also a different kind of agency: she has just learnt how to drive, and takes Cléo with her in Raoul’s smart convertible (in the early ‘60s in France, a woman at the wheel was still an anomaly). (8)
Cléo is also notorious for unfolding in real time; however it only lasts 90 minutes, and the last chapter is titled “Antoine from 6:15 to 6:30.” Having announced to Cléo that she does have cancer, and that treatment should start the next morning, the specialist drives off the hospital ground, leaving his patient with Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), the soldier on leave (from the Algerian war) she met at the Park Montsouris and who has accompanied her. “I’m sorry I am leaving. I’d like to be with you,” he says. “You are,” she replies. “I think my fear is gone. I think I’m happy.” She smiles, they gaze in each other’s eyes. The screen turns black. It’s only 6:30 PM. He had told her his train was leaving “around 8:00” at the Gare de Lyon. “We have so little time,” she first tells him. Then changing her mind, she decides they have “plenty of time,” and suggests they could “eat out” together. Those who think that it was impossible for Cléo and Antoine to have sex between 6:30 and 7:00 PM may underestimate both the power of desire between two young people who are under direct threat of death – as well as Varda’s common sense wit. In France, before the US-inspired journée continue (non-stop workday), working people would get a two-hour lunch and then resume working till 7:00 PM. It was quite possible, with a bit of cunning and complicity, to see your lover in some hotel room between 5:00 and 7:00 PM, when your spouse thought you were in the office, and then return home slightly after 7:00. A “cinq-à-sept” (“5 to 7”) was the slang term for these trysts. So, if Varda chose to frame her heroine for these two significant hours, it’s because she had something very specific in mind. Fade to black: let them enjoy their bodies while they are still alive.
Then, toward the end of their stay, Varda mother-and-daughter introduced the gala screening (in the legendary Mann’s Chinese Theater) of the newly restored DCP of Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), that remains as radical and enchanting as it was at the time of its release. Since Demy’s death in 1990, Varda has tirelessly worked on his legacy (monitoring the restoration of his films, supervising books and collections of essays, getting involved in retrospectives of their joint oeuvres), and this version of Les Parapluies (on which the entire Varda-Demy family has collaborated) is one of the highlights of this process. Following the scope of his influences (from classical Hollywood musicals to Douglas Sirk’s aesthetics), Demy designed the film in an alluring gamut of colours. In some circles in the US, the film is affectionately nicknamed “Les papiers-peints de Cherbourg” (“The Wallpapers of Cherbourg”), celebrating the exquisite correspondence between the tones of the décor and the fabrics in which the actors are dressed. In more than one way, the film also celebrates the artistic dialogue the two married filmmakers had with each other: Les Parapluies could be considered as a colour, musical version of Cléo. In both, the ugly off-screen reality of the Algerian War – the last, dirty, protracted colonial war led by the French – lurks to disrupt romance. Antoine goes back to the front, afraid, for good reason, of dying for nothing, while Cléo may not survive her treatment.
In Demy’s film, Geneviève Emery, an endearingly young Catherine Deneuve (she was twenty at the time of production, and Les Parapluies was her breakthrough), her skin as translucent as white silk, is desperately in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuevo), who works as a mechanic in a garage nearby. When Guy is drafted, the young couple is devastated, and sneak out to make love, probably for the first time. Demy masterfully captures the magnitude of Geneviève’s grief on a shot in the train station – the shot we won’t see in Cléo – but also makes her change of heart totally believable. Pregnant, unable to bear the absence of the man she loves, and gently nagged by her mother, the financially-strapped owner of the titular umbrella shop (a magnificent turn by Anne Vernon), she meets Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), the spurned lover of Lola, who has become a wealthy jewellery dealer. Comparing Geneviève to the Flemish painting of a Madonna (and don’t we agree!), Cassard falls in love with her and proposes marriage, easily accepting her growing tummy. When an embittered and wounded Guy returns, the umbrella shop has closed and Geneviève is gone. All the dialogue, including the most mundane lines – “how much does this umbrella cost?”, “when will my car be ready?” – performed recitative-like, by singers dubbing the actors, in Michel Legrand’s composition. (9)
The intimate correspondence between Cléo and Les Parapluies is that they are both mining autobiographical information – not to be self-indulgent, gossipy or revengeful, but because people’s lives are so interesting, and make such good raw material for fiction. As discretely alluded to in Les Plages d’Agnès, theatre director and actor Antoine Bourseiller was the man who convinced Varda, then his lover, to go to China and take photographs of a society that was so alien to ours at the time. She went, while pregnant with their child; simultaneously Bourseiller decided he no longer wanted to be involved with her. Varda made L’Opéra Mouffe, back in Paris, in the latest stage of her pregnancy, and had the guts to ask Bourseiller to play a small part in it. She gave birth to Rosalie in 1958, and a couple of years later, cast Bourseiller in the part of Antoine, writing for him lines that explained why he had fallen in love “often, but never as deeply as [he] wanted…”, why he “stopped halfway”. The fictional Antoine explains his reluctance by the fact that girls, in general, are afraid to love all the way, to give themselves fully. This dialogue is prime example of Varda’s gumption, bravery and generosity in trying to decipher the “sexual impasse”.
In 1962, she and Demy were married. Demy adopted Rosalie, who grew up with the child’s couple, Mathieu, born 1972. A moving moment took place at the AFI Fest when Agnès and Rosalie introduced Les Parapluies together: the spectators were informed that, when Geneviève passes through Cherbourg in her fancy car on a Christmas night, and serendipitously stops at Guy’s new gas station, the little girl who plays with the snow that has accumulated on the car’s windows is Rosalie – as in the film, the child of one man raised by another. As Varda stated forcefully in her 1965 feature, Happiness (Le Bonheur), there is no set recipe for happiness, no model for an ideal family life. You make your life and your art, as you go along, gleaning material, discarded or not, out of which you create heaven. What made the on-screen and off-screen Varda-Demy collaboration so special, is the artistic freedom they shared: they made films joyfully, following their desire, not caring for aesthetic trends or “political correctness”. They sometimes paid a price for this. Now their work endures.
The strength of desire
Varda’s presence somewhat overshadowed the 2013 AFI Fest for me – even though it offered quite a few excellent films. From a female director changing the rules of the game and advancing filmic language, Clio Barnard’s second feature, The Selfish Giant, returned to the working-class estate of Bradford, in the North of England, she had so thoughtfully explored in The Arbor (2010), a hybrid of “verbatim” documentary (with actors lip-synching pre-recorded interviews) and reconstructed scenes evoking the life and work of playwright Andrew Dunbar. The film is less directly inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same title (10) than by her encounter with kids in the estate while working on a previous film. While sharing a common theme with Wilde’s text, the film shifts its emphasis from the giant – who refuses to let children play in his garden – to the stubborn “outsider” boy who absolutely wants to be let in, at all costs. In a way, Barnard’s original model for her young protagonist – and in the film she appropriately calls him “Arbor” – imposed himself to her cinematic imagination. Engagingly played by Conner Chapman, Arbor bursts into the fiction by being expelled from school through his stubbornness and by stealing electric cables to sell their copper casing to a junk dealer, Kitten (Sean Gilder). With his buddy Swifty (another compelling performance by Shaun Thomas), they want “in” the charmed world represented by Kitten and his horse-drawn carts of scrap. Horses play a major role in Arbor’s fascination, and the narrative climax of the film comes with a superbly edited, staccato-like horse drag-racing sequence, that functions as a metaphor for the brand of working class cool masculinity that the boys aspire to.
It goes down the drain from then on. Kitten takes advantage of the boys’ fascination and exhilarated exploration of junk to salvage, collect or steal – and then puts them up to do something extremely dangerous on his behalf. Arbor remains unconscious for hours, and Swifty dies. The pace of the film changes, opening a space of stillness, melancholia and gravitas. In the empty field where the catastrophe struck, day turns into night and then day again; horses quietly graze, oblivious of the tragedy. Excluded from the Garden, Arbor-the-survivor still wants in. He wants Swifty’s mother to forgive him, to let him in her house. As she refuses to speak to him, he just sits by the door, as stubbornly as ever – but this time the stakes are higher. In Wilde’s story, the persistent little boy was a gift from heaven. In Barnard’s second feature, he is a gift from reality. Plus the horse.
Apart from Les Parapluies, the second highest moment of visual enchantment was The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu), Miyazaki Hayao’s first film in five years, rumoured to be, by the master’s choice, his last (although he may have changed his mind about it since). A new film by Miyazaki is always an event, and it was tempting, due to the news of his retirement, to see in The Wind Rises a sum of his artistic accomplishments and influences, and indeed some of the most precious moments – a girl painting in a garden, or walking through hays of blossoms animated by subtle patterns of light and shadow – are an homage to French impressionism. The film also created controversy. The world of animation has significantly expanded in the last dozen years, and now you have festivals devoted to animation documentary; still an animation biopic remains some sort of an oddity, and you open a can of worms when tackling anything that has to do with the history of the military in Japan. Indeed, Miyazaki presents his protagonist, Horikoshi Jiro, as a dreamer, a young boy obsessed with flying, and finding out that his near-sightedness would never allow him to become a pilot, reconverting his obsession to that of designing airplanes. We see him, from childhood on, entertaining an oneiric conversation with the Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni (some of the loveliest vignettes of the film). Historically, both Caproni (1886-1957) and Horikoshi (1904-82) designed aircrafts for military use (although Caproni’s company manufactured commercial and passenger airplanes as well) and Horikoshi is mostly (in)famous for being the creator of the “unbeatable” Zero fighter plane, used in the Pearl Harbour attack, and, later, as kamikake planes. (11)
Unlike Caproni (who became a Count between the two world wars), Horikoshi was a salary man working within the hierarchical corporate culture of Mitsubishi, which produced in fighters en masse. A sequence shows him in training with German engineers in the 1930s – although some anti-Japanese hostility is evident on the part of his German counterparts. Because of this heavy background, in South Korean and China, spectators have accused the film of being in bed with Japanese militarism – while, almost as predictably (maybe due to the fact that Horikoshi mourns the fate of the young men who piloted his planes, acknowledging that “none of them returned”), the Japanese right-wing has called Miyazaki, who is an outspoken pacifist, a traitor.
Based on his own manga of the same title (published in 2009 and 2010), The Wind Rises is loosely inspired by The Wind is Rising (also titled Kaze Tachinu in Japanese – only the commonly accepted English translation differs), a novel written between 1936 and 1937 by Hori Tatsuo (1904-53), one of the champions of the proletarian literary movement and modernist literature in Japan. Suffering from the tuberculosis that was to kill him at the age of 49, Hori was obsessed by the disease and overcome by thoughts of death. Borrowing its title from a line from “Le Cimetière marin” (“The maritime graveyard”, 1920), by French symbolist poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945), The Wind is Rising reproduces the diary of a male novelist/narrator who falls in love with a woman, Setsuko, in a sanatorium, and, while meticulously attentive to her medical condition, finds a love more profound than anything he could ever have imagined. Starting with the Valéry quote in epigraph (“The wind rises, we must attempt to live”), (12) Miyazaki’s film is a complex cultural object, which merges elements borrowed from Hirokoshi’s life with an entirely fictional love story with a heroine suffering from tuberculosis. The connection between the two strands is done brilliantly. On his way to Tokyo, in 1923, Jiro meets a young girl on a train – the exchange of Paul Valéry’s line functioning as a signifier of their mutual attraction – as does, because this is a visually imaginative animé, a flirtatious cloche hat flying off and then caught back. The fated earthquake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama happens, and Jiro helps the girl and her wounded maid/governess, but disappears before the family can express their gratitude. It matters very little whether or not the budding nature painter Naoko, met years later with her father in a country resort, is the same woman (in the world of animé, in the world of our romantic desire, she is, of course). Here Miyazaki expresses what is at the core of romantic attraction: the desire to cling to an image that fascinated us in the past, and that we hallucinate in our present-day fantasies. And, in one stroke, he also articulates the sexual impasse: once retrieved, the image vanishes again. Naoko, willing to love and marry, announces she has to postpone her happiness because of her illness. She disappears into Hori Tatsuo’s sanatorium. Yet the male protagonist, busy as he is crafting these splendid pieces of engineering and having imaginary encounters with Caproni, does not meet her there, as the narrator did; it is she, at the latest stages of her illness, who makes the decision to join him, and spend her last strength to be his lover and obedient wife. For, unaware or oblivious that each moment with her is precious, Horikoshi spends all his time working in Mitsubishi’s plant – like the work-obsessed artist that Miyazaki has been all – therefore losing her a third time.
Love, loss and death, the lures of a highly photogenic unique location, an increased mastery of the mise en scène: Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du Lac) is Alain Guiraudie’s latest instalment in a singular body of work that keeps upsetting the landscape of French auteur cinema. Like most everybody, I discovered him through his 2001 featurette, That Old Dream that Moves (Ce vieux rêve qui bouge), about which Godard had said that it was the best film at Cannes that year. Even though Stranger marks a giant step forward, and maybe a turning point in Guiraudie’s career, it presents common features with That Old Dream: a single space (a lake and its surroundings for the former, a bankrupt factory for the latter); an older man, apparently straight, who pines for a younger one; and the protagonist, while attentive to his advances, who looks in another direction, the vanishing point of an impossible or dangerous desire.
Guiraudie’s films are about men who love men – yet he unpredictably sprinkles them with outlandish mythologies – Time Has Come (Voici venu le temps, 2005), or a whiff of transgressive heterosexuality – The King of Escape (Le Roi de l’évasion, 2009). His camera roams the countryside of his beloved south of France, and for Stranger, he discovered an artificial lake near the Gorges du Verdon, one of the most spectacular landscapes in Upper Provence, and turned it into a nudist cruising ground for gay men. “I have long said I wanted to make a film noir – in colour – in the countryside… A chase”, he said. “But these are not the terms in which I have conceived Stranger. It does not belong to the codes of genre, because this is not what I had in mind. I was more into issues of desire and love than within the problematic of a thriller”. (13) While retaining some of the “dream of film noir” that had inhabited Guiraudie (it brings to mind, at moments, John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven, 1945), Stranger is definitely the great romantic movie he wanted to achieve.
As the blue water gently laps on the banks, naked men cruise, make small talk, sunbathe, swim or screw in the bushes, voyeurs peep, lovers keep an eye on their partners. Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps) notices an older, stout man (a body one often finds in Guiraudie’s film, against the conventions of “gay cinema”), Henri (Patrick d’Assunçoa), who does not take his clothes off and remains alone. He comes and keeps him company, they bond; Henri recounts an active heterosexual background and a broken heart, yet he falls for Frank. Handsome Michel (Christophe Paou) is seen hanging out with his boyfriend, and it’s Frank’s turn to fall in love – with Michel – who may be a dangerous man. How far would you go to live the love you are feeling? Has a murder been committed in this idyllic landscape?
With a sure hand, Guiraudie punctuates the drama with playfully repetitive shots of the parking, which creates an expectation, a narrative tension (“it makes you think of Hitchcock,” says Guiraudie, half jokingly): by looking at the cars that are there, you can guess who is already sunbathing by the lake. “I wanted to return to a single space – to a scenography, a dramaturgy, a geography that would be extremely simple and immediately legible. I wanted to be able to appropriate a place, be present in it, take possession of it and populate it with characters I could manipulate freely. All of this to go back to the question of desire”.
Filmed with a painterly touch, with a powerful, quiet, tragic and melancholy one-shot-sequence that subsumes the gaze of the protagonist, Stranger in the Lake is indeed a film about the generosity, the invincible strength, the inexhaustibility, but also the hiccups of desire. Both Henri and Frank want to go beyond their limits; Henri is ready to get killed. “I had what I wanted,” he says before dying. And Frank ends up, in the dark, on the verge of an abyss.
Desire, guts and gumption: in his project to show the raw nature and the ethical dimension of desire, Guiraudie is not hampered by questions of political correctness. As he shows atypical bodies, as he even displays sympathy for the comical yet benign character of the voyeur, he addresses the intimate connection between eroticism and danger, men who have sex with strangers without condoms, men who fall in love with would-be murderers, men who are yielding their bodies, their psyches, their souls, to the power of desire.
Troubled Waters at the AFM
There were some arthouse fare at the American Film Market, held conjointly with the AFI Fest, yet across town – Selfish Giant being screened both at the Festival and the Market – but the bulk of the offering consisted of genre films. A few years ago, there had been an attempt to open screenings to the paying public, in order, I suppose, to take advantage of these almost-always-empty screening rooms. This is not happening anymore, so, in many cases, if you have a market badge and secure a bona fide ticket from an exhibitor, you have the privilege to be the sole spectator of a feature film projected on a large Santa Monica screen, with plush armchairs, courteous staff and immediately available popcorn vendors. It costs several thousand dollars to screen a movie in these conditions, and, as one Hong Kong exhibitor told me, AFM attendees have a chock-full-o-nuts agenda of meetings, so they rarely have the time to see a film in its entirety. It feels like a waste of resources, so some exhibitors have reduced the number of screenings, or even eliminated them totally, showing trailers in their offices in the Loews Hotel, handing out carefully watermarked DVDs or sharing password-protected links. Still, 402 films including 76 world premieres were presented through a total of 627 screenings.
One of the highlights could have been the 3D presentation of Tsui Hark’s Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Di Renjie zhi shendu longhuang), a major box-office hit in China, commissioned by the Huayi Brothers – except that the 3D equipment didn’t really work in the AMC Theater and it was better to watch the film without the glasses. Some of the point may have been lost there, but not the sumptuousness of the production. Young Detective Dee is Tsui’s ninth feature since Time and Tide (Shun liu ni liu, 2000), which had marked his return to Hong Kong after his ill-fated experiment in Hollywood of the late 1990s. Like all Hong Kong directors, Tsui was faced with the choice of whether or not work with mainland China. For a producer, this is not a choice anymore – the Hong Kong market these days can only support inexpensive films with a very local flavour, such as Gallants (Da lui toi, Clement Sze-Kit Cheng and Chi-kin Kwok, 2010) Echoes of the Rainbow (Sui yuet san tau, Alex Lau, 2010) and A Simple Life (Tao jie, Ann Hui, 2011) – that tap onto the history of the territory and became unexpected hits. So Tsui opened a second office in Beijing, and, starting with Seven Swords (Qi Jian, 2005), his films have been co-produced with China. His association with the Huayi Brothers starts with the production of Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie: Tong tian di guo, 2010). Founded in 1994 by the two brothers Wang Zhongjun and Wang Zhonglei, as one of the few privately owned film production companies in China at the time (the situation has greatly evolved since), with Feng Xiaogang as their sole director for a while, Huayi Brothers has become the biggest Chinese film and television studio, in particular since Taiwanese film director Chen Kuo-fu joined as head of production in 2005. A former film critic, who switched to directing small, beautifully crafted auteur films in the 1990s, Chen had reinvented himself as head of the production unit of the Asian branch of Columbia Pictures and a producer/director of blockbusters, and his career is certainly one of the most interesting case studies in a rapidly changing Asian film industry. In 2009, the Huayi Brothers went public, offering shares to their actors, directors and producers who now are co-owners of the company. A very hands-on head of production, Chen Kuo-fu (co)writes or selects the script, hires the director, pays extended visits to the set and supervises post-production. For somebody like Tsui, who had been his own producer since he founded The Film Workshop with his partner (later his wife) Nansun Shi in 1984, a co-production with China comes with strings attached, as a number of topics (having to do with the representation of illicit sex, unpunished violence, gambling and corruption, among other things) are forbidden. Moreover, there is no rating system in China, which means that all films should be viewable by “all audiences” (children and adults). Johnny To’s Drug War (Du zhan, 2012) pushed the envelope as far as a Hong Kong director could – but then Tsui’s representation of violence was always more playful and abstract, and he is not particularly interested, let’s face it, in realistic renderings of sexual matters, offering a more adolescent vision of them.
Young Detective Dee, for all its brilliance, leans definitely toward the more juvenile aspects (hence the title) of the sword-and-sorcery fantasy. There is nothing much to suggest a hint of eroticism, like the swordplay opposing Dee (Andy Lau) and Jing’er (Li Bingbing) in the saga’s previous instalment, The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, and, now played by Taiwanese-Canadian cutie Mark Chao, Young Dee’s only interest in romance seems limited to helping a sweet courtesan, Yin Ruiji (Hong Kong heartthrob Angelababy)’s devotion to Squire Yuan Zhen (South Korean heartthrob Ian Kim). With these teen idols from the four corners of the Asian market, the film could also afford some solid acting, such as Carina Lau in the role of the Empress and Feng Shaofeng as Dee’s hierarchical supervisor, rival in sleuthing and eventually buddy (male bonding being one of Tsui’s pet subjects). The script, which involves a lethal virus manufactured by a vengeful sect, an island of lost souls, a sea monster and a naval battle, is a bit of a mess and drags on a tad – but in the scenes by or on the sea, Tsui Hark reconnects with the spectacular mix of melancholia and whimsicality that had made us love comparable liquid moments in The East is Red (Dong Fang Bu Bai: Feng yun zai qi, 1993) or the Once Upon a Time in China series (Wong Fei Hung, 1991-1995).
Another director surviving his hard-earned fame is Tobe Hooper, the director of classic horror/gory films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Eaten Alive (1977), The Funhouse (1981), and the hugely successful Poltergeist (1982). In the 1990s, Hooper directed a number of “bad” films with a faithful cult audience, switching back and forth between the slasher and the sci-fi genre. He made a number of television films and experienced more than once the purgatory of straight-to-DVD (or video) releases. Born in 1943, Hooper is both an American original and an American icon, whose singularity of vision wove in and out the zeitgeist at different moments. His first dabbling with Middle Eastern financing was the Cairo-based (and poorly received) Night Terrors (1995). The question here is whether it is possible to adapt the horror genre to cultures that didn’t produce it before – a question more poignant in countries where “culture” is often artificially produced by a moneyed ruling class – divorced from the habits and tastes of the rest of the population. Such may be the case in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the second largest economy in the Arab world (after Saudi Arabia), composed of seven emirates independent from British rule since 1971: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. Only 13% of the population is made of Emirati citizens – the rest being expats, which does not only mean executives working for foreign investors and living in the bubble of luxury condos with the local riches, but mostly overworked construction or domestic workers from India, Pakistan or The Philippines. The film world has followed with curiosity, suspicion and greed (they have so much money!) the launching of high-profile and star-studded film festivals in Dubai (that opened in 2004) and Abu Dhabi (opened in 2007): “using [the Abu Dhabi Film Festival] as a base for nurturing the emirate’s non-existent film-making culture is a far more tricky proposition,” wrote Peter Macinnes in The Guardian. (14)
What was tricky, maybe, in the chequered production of Tobe Hooper’s Djinn was that it was supposed to be the UAE’s first foray into the horror genre, but that it was grafted, not organically produced. Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja, the first female producer in Dubai, who had been hired as a consultant, reportedly commented she “was the only Emirati on set” (15) and walked off. Poorly received by Western critics after its premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Djinn may demand novel criterions to be judged. Mostly located in a lavish-but-almost empty luxury tower standing in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Ras al-Khaimah, it is a film that addresses cultural tropes that are making our world: a diasporic sensibility, the pervasive presence of oil money, the clash between traditional/patriarchal ideologies and a modern lifestyle among the new Arab bourgeoisie.
While inspired by Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the film’s best moments are those that expose the dynamic of a couple of handsome, affluent Emirati who had a full life in the US until their baby inexplicably dies and the husband accepts a job in Ras al-Khaimah. The Saudi-British actress Aiysha Hart is quite convincing as Sara, a modern woman who simply can’t adapt to being a housewife in the Emirates – but turns out to be a much more complex character than meets the eye. As Cassavetes did in Polanski’s film, and maybe predictably, the Bahrain-born actor Khalid Laith morphs from loving husband into a figure of evil. A hybrid, problematic and therefore interesting product, Djinn deserves to be revisited.
Even though they belong to the same genre, nothing could be further apart than Djinn and Rigor Mortis (Geung Si). While the former displays the hand of a master who has nothing to prove and now believes that less is more, with a certain kind of foreigner’s restraint, the latter, a truly indigenous product rooted in a first-hand experience of Hong Kong, is the first film of singer/actor/fashion designer Juno Mak who expresses his beginner’s enthusiasm by throwing everything in the pot including the (bloody) kitchen sink. After an introduction (longer in Djinn, reduced to the minimum in Mak’s film), both stories take place in a sole location, with hints of having something to say about the local culture. The garishly decorated tower in Djinn alludes to the icy, arrogant bubble in which the upper-class lives in the UAE, while Rigor Mortis joyfully plunges into the labyrinth of a working-class project (located in the New Territory of Tsuen Wan) built by the Hong Kong government to pile up their surplus of working class immigrants. We recognise (and love) such projects for having seen them so many times in Allen Fong’s films, the Young and Dangerous (Gu huo zi zhi) series, Johnny To’s gangster sagas or Ann Hui’s social dramas: long corridors with hundred of apartment doors protected by sliding metal grates; modest food stalls and gossiping neighbours; non-working elevators and dark, dirty, endless staircases; dilapidated utilities; unkempt corners. The film pays homage to the Mr Vampire (Geung si sin sang) franchise of kung fu horror comedies that was the rage in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Considering Mak’s age (he was born in 1984), he only discovered these films on DVD, so here we have, for the best and the worse, a sort of Tarantino effect.
The best is the film’s use of veteran actors, some of them having left their mark in the original Mr Vampire cycle – such as the lead, Chin Siu Ho, who plays himself… i.e. a washed-out actor of kung fu horror comedies. Hmmm. To his credit, he takes the joke well. Around him are Anthony Chan, who had played a vampire hunter in the 1980s and is now a retired vampire hunter, reconverted in the fine cooking of glutinous rice (don’t worry, he can still see the dead, it keeps him company as long as they are not dangerous); as the benevolent building janitor, Lo Hoi-pang, who in the last few years has graced several Johnny To movies; comic actor Richard Ng as cantankerous Uncle Tung, who meets an unhappy end; underutilised as a madwoman roaming the hallways with her son, the splendid Kara Hui, the fighting queen of the Shaw Brothers in the 1980s who relaunched her career with the award-winning Malaysian film At the End of Daybreak (Sham moh, 2009) by Ho Yuhang; and, last but not least, in the most interesting role, veteran actress Paw Hee-ching, who has worked with John Woo, Ann Hui and Derek Yee, plays Auntie Mui, a seemingly harmless little old lady, who repairs (badly) everybody’s torn clothing on her vintage Singer sewing machine while being ferociously in love with her “old man” Tung. The worst is that, whenever you try to make sense of the plot or care for the characters, some new creature comes out of the walls or the ceiling, some special effect invades the screen, and you can almost hear the post-production crew screaming “wow, dude!” at every new gimmick.
A box-office success in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the film hit a chord, and I won’t deny that the enthusiasm of its creators is contagious. I would have preferred it less flashy, with a bit more time to take in the top-notch value of the performances and the gutsy quality of some aspects of the plot. For Rigor Mortis is, after all, a tale of amour fou between two senior citizens. One of them becomes a vampire, the other a serial murderer, while blasé old-timers watch life passing them by. I didn’t need demon twins (their characters as evil cuties being much under-developed, mind you) or warping walls to get the pathos. But I am eager to see Mak’s second film.
While I was amused but not impressed by Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (Dabba), a gentle crowd pleaser that was India’s submission to the Oscars and shown at the AFI Fest, the AFM’s Indian entry Monsoon Shootout, had definitely more cutting edge and cinematic value – not coincidentally, it is co-produced by Anurag Kashyap (of Black Friday and Gangs of Wasseypur fame) one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Indian cinema. A tough film noir oneirically unfolding in the fractured urban landscape of Mumbai, Amit Kumar’s first feature plunges in the depths of police brutality and corruption, gangland violence in the slums and moral ambiguity. It’s also very smart – maybe a bit too much for its own good – but a splendid cinematography (courtesy of Rajeev Ravi, a collaborator on several of Kashyap’s films) envelops the twists and turns of the plot in a bewitching atmosphere.
A young cop, Adi (Vijay Varma), still upset at evidence of police misbehaviour, is faced with three possible scenarios when confronted with Shiva (played with forceful presence by award-winning actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui), an uncouth man who may be a hit man for a slum ganglord. Kumar reshuffles the cards each time, assigning a slightly different role to each of the protagonists: Khan (a nice turn by Neeraj Kabi), Adi’s cynical superior; Adi’s girlfriend, a Christian MD who has just returned from Britain, Anu (Geetanjali Thapa makes the best of it, but this is the weakest part of the lot); Rani, Shiva’s long suffering wife, put in greater harm’s way by Adi’s hesitations (the great star Tannishtha Chatterjee); her son Chhotu (Farhan Mohammad Hanif Shaikh); Geeta (Sreejita De), the prostitute who sleeps with Shiva but could also, depending on the situation, turn police informer; and a bunch of cops, city officials and gangsters. In one instance, Adi shoots Shiva and plants a gun near him, but is plagued by guilt (the man was not armed; he may even have been innocent of the first killing); in another, he does not, but Shiva turns into a beast to hunt, under the rain, in the dangerous streets; in a third, he takes Shiva into custody, and ends up, in a surprising turn, in a far more dangerous situation. Shifting the points of view, Kumar extracts some uncanny moments, when a protagonist whom we thought we understood reacts in an unexpected manner – and conveys a feeling of oppression and opacity. Like many first films, Monsoon Shootout is a tad demonstrative, but, as its director, seems promised to a brilliant career.
7-14 November 20123
Festival website: http://www.afi.com/afifest/
American Film Market
6-13 November 2013
Market website: http://www.americanfilmmarket.com/
- The Annenberg Foundation and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation have joined efforts to restore four of Varda’s “California films”: Oncle Yanco (1967), Black Panthers – Huey! (1968), Lions Love (…and Lies) and Mur Murs (1981).
- Born in 1934, George Chakiris won an Academy Award for his role as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, in West Side Story (1961).
- AFI Fest Presented by Audi 2013 catalogue, p. 39.
- Just before, Cléo had passed the “métro” station “Edgar Quinet”, a couple of blocks from rue Daguerre where Varda’s own studio and courtyard is located. The sculptor’s workshop is located in Villa Seurat, a small lane, where many artists are writers have lived, including, in the 1930s, Henri Miller, Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Soutine. The sculptures featured in the scene are those of Robert Couturier (1905-2008), who plays himself as well.
- In a significant exchange, when Raoul calls her “ma poupée,” she corrects him: “ma poupée d’amour” (baby doll). This is also the term of endearment used by the lover (Jean-Luc Godard) for his girlfriend (Anna Karina) in the short black-and-white silent film (directed by Varda) that Raoul projects. Here we have another mise en abyme of the infantilism to which women are subjected through male desire, how they can play with it, and, by exaggerating it, reverse its effects. Earlier in the film, Cléo was complaining about her “unchanging doll face”, so inappropriate for someone who may be facing death.
- Born in a German prison in 1934 (her Jewish-Polish mother and German father had been arrested for Communist propaganda; after his liberation, her father joined the Republican forces in Spain), Dorothée Blank (AKA Blanck) grew up in various institutions in Switzerland, before being reunited with her mother in France. Suffering from partial deafness (eventually cured through surgery in 1961), she started working as a dancer in the Théâtre du Châtelet at the age of 14. She appeared in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954). After Cléo, she had supporting roles in a number of Jacques Demy’s films, Lola (1961), Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Les Demoiselles de Rochefort et Peau d’Âne (1970). She is also a published writer.
- In another cutting-edge moment, one of Cléo’s chapters involves a female cab driver.
- The career of the prolific Michel Legrand (born 1932) is too huge to be more than barely suggested here. Let’s just say that he scored Catherine Deneuve’s first film, Michel Fermaud’s Les Portes claquent (1960), scored Cléo, in which he also plays the part of Bob, the pianist who accompanies the singer, wrote the music for Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est une femme (1961) and Vivre sa vie (1962), and most of Jacques Demy’s films.
- It is included in the collection The Happy Prince and Other Stories, first published in 1888. Penguin, London & New York, 2009, pp. 15-21.
- See Horikoshi ‘s obituary in the New York Times, January 12, 1982, accessed 19 February 2013.
- Le vent se lève!… Il faut tenter de vivre!
This quote is taken from the last stanza of Le Cimetière Marin and continues as follows (the last line reproducing elements of the first line of the poem, and commenting on the initial metaphor, that compared boat sails on the sea to doves on a roof).
L’air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!
Envolez-vous, pages tout éblouies!
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d’eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs!
- This quote and the following ones from Guiraudie are excerpts from an interview conducted on 29 August 2013 and published (in German) as “Den Mythos in der Wirklichkeit suchen”. Alain Guiraudie im Gespraech mit Berenice Reynaud, in: kolik.film, Sonderheft 20/ 2013, pp. 64-73.
- Peter Macinnes, “Just add cash – Abu Dhabi’s instant cinema”, The Guardian, 27 October 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/oct/27/abu-dhabi-film-festival, accessed 18 February 2014.
- Vadim Rizov, “Tobe Hooper’s long-delayed Djinn, the UAE’s first horror production, will finally have its world première,” Dissolve, 21 October 2013, http://thedissolve.com/news/725-two-plus-years-after-initial-shooting-wrapped-tobe/, accessed 18 February 2014.