At the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) no one expects many world premieres. Because of its early June slot, much of Cannes never makes it, but a lot of Berlin does, and usually a portion of Venice too. Everyone had heard about Amour’s (Michael Haneke) Palme d’Or; we all knew the stories about Tabu’s (Miguel Gomes) premiere in Berlin. As for Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov), it had been around for nearly nine months, and had already been released on DVD. In other words the films screened at SFF are pre-tested. This doesn’t of course mean that SFF is a priori inferior to those European events. On the contrary, with the benefit of hindsight and reflection it might avoid some of the crass commercial politics of “premiere” cinema.

So what purpose, if any, should film festivals serve, apart from merely existing? Introduce new films? Remind us of forgotten films? Any cinémathèque-equipped city (sadly Sydney is not one) shouldn’t really rely on film festivals for auteur-retrospectives and the like. Do festivals then have a responsibility to introduce “new” films to “new” audiences? “New” might mean several things. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) is a new film, that is, a “new release”, but apart from that there’s nothing new about it at all. Should “new” mean formally, aesthetically innovative? Possibly, but what a fraught criterion. Such a benchmark might close down a large part of the world festival circuit. Rather than finding the right meaning of “new”, it might be better to discard the term altogether. Perhaps a festival should simply present the cinema of a given time and place, weaving together past and present films into a uniquely whole fabric, one that fits the very moment of the festival itself, its political and aesthetic contours so to speak. Reeling backward, you might counter that compared to “new” such a criterion is doubly flimsy, triply vague, and altogether impractical. Let me conclude this little experiment by suggesting that a festival shouldn’t define itself by any slogan or aesthetic category. Just like the Great Dionysia of ancient Greece that were characterised by a series of events, all nestled within an “exceptional” period, so the film festival should both act as foil to profane, day-to-day cinema-going, and at the same time distill a more heightened consciousness of the cinematic present and of the cinematic place of its “mother city” in its programme.

Certainly in Sydney, a true film festival is out of the ordinary. For the most part, cinema in Sydney means every single cinema showing exactly the same films ten times a day. Remember that film festivals themselves appeared only after the rationalisation of film programming in the 1930s (of course this wasn’t the only reason for their appearance). Secondly, Sydney’s sense of cinema history, at least in its public institutions is desperately invisible, if not non-existent. Thirdly, comically, in competition with the festival for Sydney’s entertainment dollar is the Vivid Festival; a vapid display of outdoor lighting that plunges Circular Quay into darkness for an underwhelming piece of hypnotic bread and circus. The bar, it seems, is very low indeed. Perhaps, if we look at the above festival ethic from the opposite point of view, then it’s more fait accompli than criterion, not so much a prescriptive canon to which the festival aspires, but rather an inevitable consequence of what a film festival really is, for better or worse. In short, we get what we deserve. It is what it is. Ahem.


That said, let’s look at this year’s programme. After the five-year reign of Clare Stewart, the ship is still afloat, although minus seven screening days, and now captained by new festival director Nashen Moodley. Overall I’d say this year’s line-up lacked panache. If it was a car it would be a serviceable white hatch, faultless, reliable, not worth a second look. Avant-garde, experimental films of any sort were noticeably absent. Denis Côté’s Bestiaire for example didn’t make it, nor did recent documentaries on Artavazd Peleshian (Pietro Marcello’s Il silenzio di Pelesjan) and Jean Epstein (James June Schneider’s Jean Epstein, Young Oceans of Cinema), two undisputed, but sometimes forgotten titans of the past. The most promising part of this year’s programme was the inclusion of the Blackfella Films section for the first time, which included Rachel Perkins’ Mabo. I’d like to see this section tackle the history as well as the present of indigenous filmmaking.

Bernardo Bertolucci couldn’t be more familiar to Sydney audiences, nevertheless he was chosen as the subject of one of this year’s retrospectives. Almost none of his more obscure films were screened. The behemoth Novecento (1900, 1976) did sell out though. Never having seen Strategia del ragno (The Spider’s Stratagem, 1970), its errant sailors, Godard-like culture juggling of Magritte paintings and the Verdi operas, Godard-like lateral window tracks, and cripplingly overdone dénouement kept me awake and sharp. I dreamt a little of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps afterwards, the film that ended up winning the official competition (although since this year’s Nanni Moretti circus at Cannes, and long before, I’ve tried to ignore festival prize-giving of all kinds). Occasionally, at unexpected moments, Alps came alive, as though liberated from any sort of duty to make sense; it would mould itself perfectly for a time, and then morph once more, aimlessly, into incoherence. Having fallen asleep at exactly the right moment (if only for a few minutes), I spent the rest of the film floundering between the Charbydis of distracted incomprehension and the Scylla of my next nap (it didn’t happen). This whole fiasco proved to me that Lanthimos should have cut those two minutes for everyone else too. Ditto for Miike Takashi’s Ichimei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai), except that I only wished that I’d fallen asleep. The long, drawn-out middle section was uninspired bathos or worse. The whole thing should have been cut as a 15 minute short; transform the middle section into a single plan-séquence, bookend it with bamboo stomach cutting, and finish it with a slow-motion shot of the old, hobbling lord Li limping into the audience with the Shogun.

Season of the Sun

The second retrospective belonged to the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Japanese studio Nikkatsu. Takumi Furukawa’s Taiyo no kisetsu (Season of the Sun, 1956), beautifully introduced by Quentin Turnour, who noted that the film signalled the end of the kimono in Japanese youth cinema and the beginning of the Hawaiian shirt, was unpretentiously emancipatory. Following a group of young boxing club members in their nihilistic pursuit of girls, barroom brawls played-out above a deafening cacophony of shouts, grunts and crashing furniture. Mostly absent, though played by bad character actors when they do appear, parents trim their garden placidly unaware of anything.  The central couple never fights for their love, and not a ripple appears on the surface even after pregnancy and death. Hiroyuki Nagato’s final scream signalled dispassionate frustration, almost without pain.

Mild-mannered sadism characterises the end of Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan): an excruciatingly slow stomach autopsy at the end of 130 minutes of Ceylan “humidity”. The dripping faces and crackling clouds familiar from Üç maymun (Three Monkeys, 2008) linger in the background while some anecdotal noir body hunting takes up the foreground. The long shots of cars on meandering hillside roads, the polite philosophical banter, the unpredictable waiting all make one think of Abbas Kiarostami. Another entry fitted the offbeat noir category, although much less successfully, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot. Probably because of the failure of its principle formal conceit (the camera shows the upside-down vision that results from a headshot suffered by the protagonist, a vigilante assassin cum Buddhist monk), the film distracts us from itself far too often. In prime film noir the pot must always be simmering and spluttering close to its brim; any sudden reduction in temperature will ruin the dish.

Holy Motors

Ah, Holy Motors (Leos Carax). Having read the accounts of Holy Motors’ screening at Cannes, I finally experienced first hand the exhilarating sense of refreshment unexpected masterpieces bring to the dull day-to-day of festival mediocrity. After seeing En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair, Nikolaj Arcel), a tedious Danish period piece, whose only merit was Mads Mikkelsen’s succulent philosophe lips, and then learning that the grey-haired subscriber brigade all around me had adored it, and that it would get an Australian commercial release, I was feeling a little despondent. Suddenly Denis Lavant (aka Monsieur Merde) was chewing fingers off a smarmy P. A., turning his nose up at the heavens, masturbating himself to sleep on Eva Mendes’ lap, all the while mumbling to himself in a strange made-up language, a cross-between Ewok and Kalahari bushman. I was reborn, rejuvenated, tearily proud to be in a cinema. For a moment Lavant was my Chaplin, a beady-eyed cannibal leprechaun running amok in the pretty and silly world of mercenary aesthetics. And for the sake of what?: “la beauté du geste”.

If Wes Anderson (don’t be alarmed, I’m not going to discuss his film) was original, if he grew up, he might make a film like Tabu (Miguel Gomes). It’s unlikely though. Tabu is one of the few films I’ve seen recently whose authorial signature while difficult to describe was unmistakably present and indelible. And yet the film has the layering and formal stricture of an adaptation, or better, of a translation. Just like Ossian’s poetry in the 18th century, this work might have been a brilliant hoax, if only its audience wanted to believe. An inverted diptych, after the prologue, part two, “Paradise”, follows part one, “Paradise Lost”. The absence of spoken dialogue, the chorus of animal sounds and the at times uncomfortable lushness of ’60s Phil Spector-style walls of sound, transforms the second part into a beguiling improvisation in muted melodrama. An unseemly kerfuffle broke out at the Berlinale this year when the Taviani brothers’ Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die) pipped it for the Gold Bear. Oh well.

Caesar Must Die

In Rome’s Rebbibia maximum-security prison, theatre director Fabio Cavalli rehearses a selection of prisoners for a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s a commonplace to suggest that the epithets fiction and documentary aren’t contradictory. The spectacle of Caesar’s assassination at the hands of Brutus flickers in and out of view, nestled in the rectilinear passages, courtyards and cells of the prison. In shimmering monochrome, burly thespians utter the words of the play as though it were an incantation, a magical, apotropaic act, their portal into cinemas and theatres everywhere, their shield against their own imprisoned selves.  If Shakespeare’s Elizabethan diction resists translation, then the mish-mash of Roman, Sicilian and Neapolitan accents and phrases lend to the text a new, forceful, almost choral intonation. And in keeping with a certain Brechtian layering of experience, the architecture of the prison acts counters the well-known episodes of the liberators’ conspiracy. Caesar Must Die doesn’t reinvent the cinema, nor does it show anyone the way ahead, instead it rescues from extinction a single vital strand of cinema. “The ides of March are come – Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”

After a trilogy of films on the myth of power in the 20th century, Sokurov delves into one of the antecedent myths of modernity itself, the Faust story. Sokurov’s Faust remembers the invention of paper money in part two of Goethe’s play, and incarnates Mephistopheles as Mauricius Müller, the town moneylender. Not the aristocratic Mephisto of the 19th century, but rather the forerunner to Sokurov’s sickly, grotesque, emphatically corporeal men of power — the defecant Hitler of Moloch (1999), Telets (Taurus, 2001)’s Lenin in wan verdigris, and the frail and heliotic Hirohito of Solntse (The Sun, 2005)  — the diabolical usurer tumbles, squeals and chatters his way through the streets of a middle-European town, in the company of the somewhat dowdy, middle-aged Faust. Shadings and tinctures, lengthen, darken, smudge and stain the contours of the image’s surface, imperceptibly fluctuating, in thrall to a diabolical plasticity. Bosch, Bruegel, and even Vermeer lurk somewhere. Optical and digital distortion of perspective interacts with a thin-tinted succession of colour-textures. Just like the ebullient geyser towards the film’s end, or the gloopy innards of the corpse on Faust’s dissection rack, or Wagner’s malformed homunculus, spectral globules distend outward from the image-surface only to twang back into place instants later.

Andrea Arnold’s time in the tenements of Britain have ended, at least for a while. She’s turned to the well-worn paths of Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire moor. Just as in Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), one figure leads the camera, Heathcliff. Two black actors Solomon Glave (as a boy) and James Howson are cast in the role, and Arnold eschews much material that might have distracted the film from the book’s central problems: the impossibility, on this side of the grave, of pure love; the sado-masochistic trial and error of impure love; and the protean, but relentless grip of unspoken vows. Animals too inhabit Arnold’s earlier films, not so much as ciphers for instinct or non-human nature, but as shamanistic familiars, mistaken for people; think of the fox dashing across the vacant lot on the security screens in Red Road, or the old dying horse in Fish Tank. Having seen Wuthering Heights shortly after Gomes’ Tabu a peculiarity of their respective soundtracks struck me: a double-pair of adaptations had produced a cross-pair of new sounds: Gomes/Murnau’s croaking frogs and Arnold/Brontë’s twitchy birds. Both films radically alter their “original”, Arnold by resisting a tradition of neat and wordy Brontë adpatation, and Gomes by invoking Murnau’s world without recreating it. But then fidelity to an original was what made Heathcliff bang his head on the wall for so long in the first place.

The perfectly enigmatic Dr Reiser, loved by the retired women seated around me, viewed with suspicion by myself, is one half of Christian Petzold’s cleverly crafted dilemma in Barbara. Stay in the DDR, renounce a “better life”, but marry a doctor and live happily but complicit, perhaps, in the crimes of the state; or leave, marry a rich West German, become a housewife, the shepherd of a soulless and doubly inescapable consumerism. In the fading moments of the film Petzold still manages to convince us that Dr Reiser just might be a serial-killer, a slasher moonlighting as a physician, without ever presenting any evidence whatsoever apart from a Cheshire grin.

Neither wise general turned black marketeer, nor suave French wine sipping playboy, Lino (a drug trafficker/man of war) wears thick-soled work boots, dusty linen, and creased denim. His hands are worn, unflinching, and his eyes blurry black needlepoints peering out from under the brim of a battered cap. Almost always lurking in the obscure periphery of the frame, and never shown in close-up, he’s wily, ruthless, the antithesis of the gringo crime prince. Without supernatural prescience, inhuman stamina or machinic killing powers, he conducts his business inexorably, methodically, like Richard Crenna robbing a train with a helicopter in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un flic (1972). Despite the card of statistics at the end of the film, Miss Bala, Gerardo Naranjo’s new film isn’t a docu-drama, it’s a crafty genre piece, concealing its own little fragment of the world in the classical language of action.

Even though I sometimes complain, Sydney would be a miserably rained out basket case without its early June fix of actual cinema.

Sydney Film Festival
6-17 June 2012
Festival website: http://sff.org.au/