October 13–26, 2005
As a daring and cinephiliac event, the Vienna International Film Festival (Viennale) shares its programming philosophy with such kindred film festivals as Rotterdam, Indie Lisboa, Torino and Entrevues Belfort, rather than the survey-based festivals of New York, London or Melbourne, or the premiere-focused glamfests of Cannes, Toronto and Berlin. Such a carefully sculptured program, as designed by Festival Director Hans Hurch, appears to be the result of a combination of curating and programming: curated programs by guest programmers such as the highly respected Bérénice Reynaud and Quintín as well as a broad survey of the best and most inventive experimental, documentary, feature and shorts films of the past year.
As a cinephiliac city, what strikes one most about Vienna is the types of cinema it embraces. Not only is there the Viennale, but it is home to illustrious film and DVD distributors such as Sixpack and Index. It is also home to a distinguished lineage of avant garde artists and filmmakers throughout the 20th century including Kurt Kren, Valie Export, Peter Kubelka, Gustav Deutsch, Martin Arnold and Peter Tscherkassky, to just name a few. Importantly, there is the Österreichisches Filmmuseum (whose Director is former Viennale director Alexander Horwath) which presents the best in international avant-garde and classic cinema in new contexts all year round. Each year it also presents a major Retrospective as part of the Viennale. Past editions have included Straub and Huillet, Jacques Rivette, early films from the Austrian Film Archive and the cinema of the Central Asian Republics. This year’s mammoth Retrospective was curated by Jonas Mekas and entitled Andy Warhol: Filmmaker (1). Like its music and art, experimental and challenging is how Vienna likes its cinema.
A trio of films set in Paris provided some of the best viewing at the 2005 Viennale. Philippe Garrel’s Les amants réguliers (2005) has by now received wide distribution and exhibition, perhaps the widest of this fascinating filmmaker’s career, thanks to its Silver Lion (Venice), Louis Delluc and Cesar (for Louis Garrel) prizes. This was for me the most haunting film of the festival. Ostensibly shot and made relatively quickly (in part as a response to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers ), the film looks at the events of May ’68 for a young group of artists: how they cope with its aftermath and reconcile its ideals of anarchy, revolution and anti-capitalism with their inner desires for love, a career and a family.
As well as existing as a perfectly formed whole, the film is replete with pure moments. As François (Louis Garrel) falls asleep behind the barricades, he dreams of a clan of ghostly figures, dressed in 18th century costume and dragging a giant carriage wheel (which they wish to set on fire), walking towards the camera and then suddenly being dispersed by a gunshot (entering the dream through its waking life actuality). The visual effect is startling and recalls the look of some of Garrel’s films of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when the actors dressed in such a way and roamed landscapes seemingly unfixed to any particular time period. The dream’s visual appearance also vividly expresses François’ romantic and literary yearnings. There is a second, similar scene involving the young lovers towards the end of the film. The first meeting of François and Lillie (Clothilde Hesme) on a couch at a party is at once awkward but perfect executed. It is testament to the two actors and their infectious smiles that you can almost feel the adrenaline running through their bodies as they nervously lock eyes and flirt. The young dandies’ dance to The Kinks “This Time Tomorrow” is giddily joyous and embracing but in it hangs a spectre of sadness for, as the lyrics in the song express, they may feel the warm happiness today but have no image of their future. Throughout the film, William Lubtchansky’s ghostly black and white cinematography captures a gallery of young faces in close up, at the same time grotesque in their underdevelopment yet beautiful in their innocence and potency. For once and for all, in Les amants réguliers, Garrel proves that those conflicting feelings of hope, dreams and fear of the future (so inherent in being young) have never left him, or he has never forgotten them. If much of Garrel’s cinema since the 1980s is concerned with the subsequential long-term effects of being a casualty of this period of intense expectation, in Les Amants réguliers it is all reconciled, despite an ostensibly (and somewhat ambivalently) tragic ending.
Le Petit Lieutenant (2005), the fourth feature directed by the underrated (outside of France) Xavier Beauvois (himself one time collaborator of Garrel), develops his stylistic and thematic concerns as presented in Selon Matthieu (2000), N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir (Don’t Forget You Are Going to Die) (1995) and Nord (1991). Set in the milieu of the Parisian police forces, it may draw unfortunate comparisons to the considerably inferior 36 Quai des Orfevres (2005), but this is no policier. As with Beauvois’ previous films, it concerns a naïve young man, this time Antoine (the increasingly adaptable Jalil Lespert), and his future, as he graduates from police academy and enters the force. Whilst it appears the man’s future is laid out for him, the film develops with some structural and narrative surprises: in the latter half of the film, the confident, cool Captain Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye) seizes the viewer’s attention as she self-fragments in response to a central tragic incident. As it is conceived and directed by Beauvois, there are some very dark revelations throughout the film (including a particularly grisly autopsy scene), but unlike with his earlier protagonists, there is a naïve optimism in the young Antoine, which makes for a realist, textured film that elicits a gamut of emotions.
One of the most interesting directors working in Japan today is Nobuhiro Suwa (H Story , M/Other ). His latest feature Un Couple parfait (A Perfect Couple) (2005) is set in Paris, is in French and deals with the messy and contradictory procedure of an intimate relationship break-up. As the man and woman (beautifully portrayed by the curiously similarly-named Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Bruno Todeschini) separate and spend time apart, their desire for each other not only becomes apparent but intensifies, against their will, and they can’t help but meet again in a seemingly never-ending cycle of contempt and romantic desire. Suwa, together with Caroline Champetier (one of the best cinematographers working in France today), fashions a coolly stylish and very adult film dealing with the most primitive aspects of the messy push-pull mechanics of intimacy and over a minimal physical setting. Watch out for a special tribute program on Suwa at Indie Lisboa in April.
In Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas’ A Perfect Day (2005), the usually hazardous elements of smoking and traffic impart a comforting sense of community. It is a quiet though solid story about a young man Malek (Ziad Saad) moving through the city of Beirut, always seemingly on the run: from an over-protective, perpetually grieving mother (Julia Kassar), the actuality of his girlfriend leaving him, and the various demands living in the big city places on him. The only time Malek seems to forget these shadows of torment is when the old men who hang out near his house hustle cigarettes off of him. Moving slowly in his car through the chaotic streets only serves to illustrate his inherent frustration at the lack of momentum in his life. Malek lives a quietly reckless life. Sitting in his car, his putting in his (ex) girlfriend’s contact lense (that she has left in the car) not only illustrates his desperate desire for intimacy with her, to know what she sees, but consequently has him driving with blurry vision – with all the risks that brings – rendered visually in a beautifully atomised effect of fractured lights passing through the car windshield at night.
Rather than sitting directly on his shoulders, Malek’s tension is always hovering around him at a distance as he continually wonders (yet does not actively seek for much of the film): how to escape, or at least, how to sneak a glimpse of what lies around the corner? His mother, on the other hand, appears terrified of the actualisation of what lies around the corner: having to deal with the approaching statement of official death of her husband who disappeared 12 years earlier. Tonally, A Perfect Day is reminiscent of the cinema of the great Turkish filmmaker, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Like his Uzak (2003), there is a shadowy spectre hanging over this film as well as moments of light humour – such as when Malek bonds with a boy over a hideous mobile phone ringtone, and his interaction with the aforementioned old men, who just hang out without much care, playing street games and enjoying the moment, providing comforting relief to Malek.
Of all the documentaries, the still little-known Face Addict (2005) left the greatest impression on me, all the more so because I was not planning to see it but chanced upon it in a free period where it turned out my hunger for more cinema was greater than my hunger for food and air. Ostensibly about (director) Edo Bertoglio’s (Downtown 81 ) reminiscences of his art circle friends’ hedonistic lifestyle in downtown New York in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the film for me was one of the most honest depictions of addiction that I have come across. Through it, I think I came to a deeper understanding of what addiction is: it has very little to do with morality or weakness and has at its core everything to do with an uncompromising need for love, happiness and never-ending beauty. And the narcissistic, beautiful creatures of Face Addict are not too cool for school to admit what they were looking for in their addictions. As the gorgeous Wendy Whitelaw sits on her bed in her pink bedroom, describing her drug addiction as a portal into a world “where everything is pretty”, she elicits a reaction not of judgement or pity but of empathy and benevolence. Her words, and those of artist Walter Steding, writer Victor Bockris (Warhol’s biographer) and the director himself, come from somewhere deeply primitive in their hearts, which is more than I can say for the contribution of Deborah Harry (also interviewed) in this film. Around these revealing disclosures are weaved some alluring photographic shots of NY past and present (many by the always-excellent Maripol, the director’s partner) and assorted eccentric bodies doing eccentric things. One of the most beautiful looking documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, one that presents the very literal agony and the ecstacy of la dolce vita, I hope this gets broader international exposure in 2006.
Other documentaries that let the images speak for themselves, and did so majestically, were Tizzi Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s delightful Babooska (about a touring Italian family clan of clowns), Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi’s other-worldly Frammenti elettrici n.4–5. Asia–Africa (Electric Fragments n.4–5. Asia–Africa), the moving (no pun intended!) A Letter from Greenpoint in which Jonas Mekas’ films his departure from his longtime NY home, and Mercedes Alvarez’s poignant El Cielo Gira (The Sky Turns) (2004).
One of the program sections I was most looking forward to seeing at the Viennale was the tribute to Pedro Costa, and most fortunately even my high expectations were surpassed. O Sangue (Blood) (1989) is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable film debuts of the last 20 years. Filmed in milky black and white, each shot is so carefully composed the film could well be a montage of a thousand photos were it not for the emotive, intelligent dialogue (“We’ll never have a night like this again, my body’s gone all limp, numb”), dreamy orchestral score and excellent use of pop music. This magical melodrama tells the story of two young brothers (Pedro Hestnes and Nuno Ferreira) and a young kindergarten teacher (Inês de Medeiros) on the run from some nasty criminals, a mean uncle (Luis Miguel Cintra) and possibly the law. In what seems to be continuous nightime, shimmering light reflections play on the characters’ faces, only enhancing the romantic feel. The film constantly moves, it exists in the present continuous. People appear out of nowhere and re-enter the narrative. It is probably the only Costa film (save of course the Straubs documentary) to reference other cinema – the 1950s teen dramas of Nicholas Ray, as well as Badlands and The Night of the Hunter. Much like the Viennale itself, O Sangue mixes the pop with the intellectual-political, assuredly blending the boundaries.
In Casa de lava (Down to Earth) (1994), an old violin-player (played by Portuguese musician Raul Andrade) muses “We ought to die as children and be born old”. Nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) has come to Cape Verde from Portugal to accompany a young, comatose worker (injured on a Lisbon worksite) back to his country and family. Not only does nobody seem interested in claiming the body, but Mariana becomes entangled in the lives of the mysterious inhabitants of the small village, especially Edite (Edith Scob, always brilliant). Casa de lava is a pivotal film in Costa’s filmography as it is the first in which he depicts the lives of the Cape Verdians who would populate most of his subsequent films. Like O Sangue, his second feature is full of images that haunt – for instance, Edite embracing the dog she has just killed on the black sand – but in it Costa’s style has become less romantic, more austere, and the people more isolated: these unpossessed people don’t belong to anyone, nor do their dogs. The film is no less affecting than O Sangue, in fact it is the more lingering of the films.
Ossos (Bones) (1997) and No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room) (2000) tell the stories of the Cape Verdians living in the Estrela d’Africa region on the outskirts of Lisbon, as far away economically and culturally as one can get from Portugal’s bourgeois milieu depicted in the films of Manoel de Oliveira. With each successive film, Costa’s style becomes more exact, more minimalist and more intimate, culminating in Vanda, an extraordinary film that for three hours places the viewer inside the cavernous bedroom of Vanda Duarte, an actress from Ossos. To enter Vanda’s room is to enter her life. Always from the same camera position, we bear witness to her never-ceasing, full-bodied coughing, drug taking, frank discussions with her sister and mother and, at times, her most personal thoughts. It is so easy to forget there is a filmmaker sitting in the room with her, alongside the camera. As with his previous two films, Costa however never once holds his characters up to be judged or pitied; unlike so many contemporary filmmakers, he observes and honours these people and not for a second ever exploits their situation of hardship.
Until his next film Juventude em Marcha is released, Costa’s most recent feature-length film is the documentary on the French filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, entitled Ou gît votre sourire enfoui (Where Has Your Hidden Smile Gone?) (2001). The documentary, shot in Costa’s now-signature precise, static style, reveals a hard-working, scrupulous pair who cut no corners – not even a single film frame – when it comes to creating images that express exactly what they want to say (like Costa himself), and is throughout fascinating to watch. In addition to these films, the Viennale also presented a number of Costa’s shorts: 6 Bagatelas (2001), The End of a Love Affair (2003) and Ne change rien (2005), a 13-minute clip of the enticing French actress-signer Jeanne Balibar in concert (with Nobuhiro Suwa as cinematographer). The Charim Galerie in the city’s centre also exhibited Costa’s video installation Minino Macho, Minino Fêmea (2003).
The long-overdue tribute to Chinese silent film star Ruan Lingyu by the film critic and programmer Bérénice Reynaud was also a revelation. Even in just the four films screened (she starred in 29 films, most unavailable today), Ruan’s talents as an actress are evident. The films are lent an even more poignant note by her tragic 1935 suicide, aged 25, re-enacted by Maggie Cheung in Stanley Kwan’s best film, Yuen Ling-yuk (Centre Stage) (1991/2005), also screened in its full version. Shen nu (The Goddess) (Wu Yonggang, 1934) is perhaps the most well-known of her films and was screened in an excellent print from the China Film Archive. As the single mother who must resort to prostitution in order for her to “live her life” with her young son, Ruan’s performance is reminsicent of Anna Karina’s in Vivre sa vie: not only are there obvious storyline and thematic similarities between the two films – I wonder if Godard had seen this film when he made his 1962 masterpiece? – but both actresses share a forlornly tragic gaze. Like Karina, Ruan has large, deeply sad eyes but when she laughs, the transformation comes as such a beautiful visual shock, the entire screen is illuminated. The other films screened – Lian ai yu yiwu (Love and Duty) (Bu Wancang, 1931), Xiao wanyi (Little Toys) (Sun Yu, 1933) and Xin nuxing (New Women) (Cai Chusheng, 1934) – were all excellent inclusions and reveal an actor (again, like Karina) fully capable of romantic comedy as well as soulful tragedy. These films deserve a place in the silent cinema canon as much as anything by Ernst Lubitsch, Louis Feuillade, Victor Sjöström, Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu or D.W. Griffith.
Jane Birkin’s screen talent has often been eclipsed by her status as famous wife, muse, mother, émigré, sex symbol and handbag. So as a longtime Jane B fan, the idea for a Tribute to Jane Birkin – the first ever film season dedicated to the British-born French-adopted gamine – is pure genius on the Viennale’s part. Whilst the festival did not screen all of Jane’s films (impossible as they currently number around 74, and include many bit parts, most famously in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up ), the 11 films selected provided an excellent panorama of Jane’s dramatic and comedic range. She was also a special guest of the Viennale and performed a concert as part of the program (just one of the many ways the Viennale fused music and performance with its film program).
That Birkin has worked with some of the best of France’s filmmakers – Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette, Jacques Doillon, Alain Resnais among them – is further testimony to her very special qualities. Immortalised in the early songs of Serge Gainsbourg as a pale, delicate girl-child with a wispy voice and androgynous frame, Jane on screen is another being altogether: she can be rubbery and hilarious (even in such ill-advised films as Merci… Dr. Rey ) and is wholly capable of traversing a broad dramatic range: playing a quietly psychotic, lonely virgin in Marion Hansel’s Dust (1985); forever the prodigal daughter in Bertrand Tavernier’s Daddy Nostalgie (1990); the over-desired, frenzied femme fatale in Jacques Doillon’s La Pirate; (1984) and perhaps her most sympathetic role, the simple country girl who merely wants to be loved, in Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime… moi, non plus (1976).
But she has also got to be one of the most naturally hilarious women working in cinema. Also screening at the Viennale were two very funny, bawdy comedies from the 1970s: Le Mouton enragé (Michel Deville, 1973) and La Moutarde me monte au nez (Claude Zidi, 1974). Both excelled in a very French sort of humour that relies on endless nonverbal gags and mistaken identity and it is probably through these films that Birkin’s bona fide talents as a comedian (as well as her new found status as a comédienne) first came to be embraced by a mainstream French audience.
In wanting to concentrate on some contemporary titles I am afraid I have left little room to look deeply into some of the other special programs but I did want to mention them to illustrate the breadth of Viennale’s program. As well as the mammoth retrospective Warhol program at the Filmmuseum, Warhol collaborator Gerard Malanga was a special guest and honoured with an exhibition of his photography and screenings of several of his short films. Lav Diaz’s Ebolusyon ng isang panilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family) (2004) received its Austrian premiere. The Filmarchiv Austria presented a four-part program of Austrian proletariat cinema as well as Orf 3, a six-part look at some of the more interesting programs broadcast on Austrian national television from the ‘60s to the early ‘90s. Experimental cinema was well-represented of course, not only in Ken Jacobs’ wonderfully minimal festival trailer, Incendiary Cinema, but in small programs of recent work by avant-gardists Les Leveque (USA) and Jean-Claude Rousseau (France). Although I must state that perhaps save some of the Birkin films, nearly all of the films that I saw featured experimental elements. Argentinean critic and programmer Quintín was also in town to present Buenos Aires Dreams Itself, his selection of international films that took the city of Buenos Aires as its location. This selection was broad indeed and included Hugo Santiago’s interminably dark Invasion (1969) as well as Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946), Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997) and Vagon fumador (Smokers Only) (Veronica Chen, 2001), among others.
The 2005 Viennale presented 305 screenings over 12 days in six beautiful, very comfortable single-screen cinemas all within walking distance from each other. The festival-going logistics and the catalogue were both user friendly, and made for a very enjoyable experience. The programming was such that I saw very few bad films. Best of all, Viennale is a festival that simultaneously speaks to an intellectual inclination, a poetic impulse and the desire for the type of adrenaline rush induced by loud, brilliant avant-garde pop music.
- See Andréa Picard’s coverage of the Warhol Retrospective in Cinemascope 25, 2005.