It is always ‘before the Revolution’ for us, sons of the bourgeoisie.
– Bernardo Bertolucci, Prima della rivoluzione (1964)
Invited as Guest Artistic Director by the 2012 AFI FEST presented by Audi, Bernardo Bertolucci presented a selection of his beloved films that was rather, shall we say, conformist (I know, that’s a cheap shot) or at least safe: Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street (1933), Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939), Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), as well as Monica Stambrini’s Electric Chair, a “behind-the-scenes” documentary about the making of his latest film, Io e te (Me and You). Shown off-competition at Cannes, showcased in Toronto and released last October in Italy (but not yet in the US and not shown at the AFI), Bertolucci’s first film in ten years explores the Maestro’s continued fascination for “adolescent sensual yearning”. (1)
For the last three years Guest Artistic Director invitations have indeed strengthened AFI FEST’s cinephilic allure. As the only festival in the US to be accredited by FIAPF, and having developed under the shadow of the formidable American Film Institute, the event entertains a complex relationship to mainstream US film culture and international cinephilia. It offers a prestigious opening night to commercial films that will be released in the last few weeks of the year in order to be eligible for the Oscars; in addition to two world premieres (Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln), the gala evenings included Ang Li’s Life of Pi (world premiered at the New York Film Festival but the members of the Academy live mostly in LA….) as well as Walter Salles’ On the Road (shown in competition at Cannes). A dozen potential Oscar contenders (some that didn’t make the short list) from South Korea to Romania were sprinkled throughout the international sections, starting with Austria’s official entry, Palm d’Or winner Amour by Michael Haneke. The Oscar connection is also clear as “Grand Jury Prize winners in the live-action and animation shorts categories are recognized as qualifiers for the annual Academy Awards.” (2) Two prizes were awarded, first to an animation film from Belgium, Oh Willy… by Emma De Swaef and Marc Roels and to a short live action film showcased in the Young Americans section, Roger Hayn’s Introducing Bobby, the portrait of a bed-ridden ex-con.
More than a simple spring-board for the Oscar race, the international selection springs from the desire to offer audiences the non-mainstream fares they are really hungry for, as evidenced by the sold-out screenings of Hong Sang-Soo’s Da-Reun Na Ra-e-suh (In Another Country), Miguel Gomez’s Tabu, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, Xavier Dolan’s Lawrence Anyways or Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. “Sold out” is a misnomer; as AFI FEST is officially “presented by Audi”, the sponsorship of the car company has allowed the festival to organise free screenings for a few years now.
If one moves away from predictable blockbusters, what AFI FEST does best, in the New Auteurs, Young Americans and Breakthrough sections, respectively, is to give more edgy films selected at other festivals their first crack at US audiences, and to foreground the work of young US directors who still have a zest for experimentation. And, from Bertolucci to some Oscar-contender foreign fares (such as Mexico’s Después de Lucía), a number of films were striving for original ways to answer cinema’s perennial question: how to represent youth?
Return effect, repetition of a phase of the subject’s development during which representation and perception were not yet differentiated, and the desire to return to that state…. It is indeed desire as such, i.e. desire of desire, the nostalgia for a state in which desire has been satisfied through the transfer of a perception to a formation resembling hallucination which seems to be activated by the cinematic apparatus.
– Jean-Louis Baudry (3)
Our existence as spectacle starts as birth – as infants we are instantly looked at, watched, coveted and admired. We gradually lose the privilege of being in the centre of a circle of gazes: there is always another baby, born after us, that usurps our privileged position; there will always be somebody younger… Then we learn how to look – at other babies, at younger bodies – and find great pleasure doing so. The spectacle of youth captivates us – so it makes sense that the ultimate voyeuristic apparatus, the camera, is fascinated by youth. And cinema being a mode of reproduction (once mechanical, now digital), one of its functions may have been to indulge our desire to capture youth into a perennial image. Look at these movie stars of the silent era. They have turned to dust, but the glow of their skin, the sparkle in their eyes, the light in their flowing hair, their moist lips at the moment of yielding to passion, are with us forever.
It is stating the obvious that cinema is not only fascinated by youth – it is a great purveyor and a great consumer of young bodies. In his seminal text, “The Apparatus”, Jean-Louis Baudry compares the effects the cinematic apparatus has on the subject to those of the dream as analysed by Freud; as such, as “an apparatus capable precisely of fabricating an impression of reality,” (4) it fulfils an archaic desire, producing “a first kind of regression… back to a primitive narcissism” (Ibid, 114) – such as, one could say, the state of the infant who is both an object of spectacle and in a position to fulfil his/her desires through hallucination.
This young body we are losing a little bit more every time we grow a day older, the regression made possible by cinema gives it back to us – this time as the spectacle of an other, perennially young, onto which we can project ourselves. The film spectator is always older – no matter how slightly – than the person on the screen, for the latter is trapped in an eternal present. As much as the dreamwork, the mechanism with which Baudry could have compared cinema is the fantasmatic “Morel’s Invention” as depicted in Adolfo Bioy Casares’ eponymous novel: a mad inventor, in love with a woman he couldn’t have, captures her soul and her image through a machine that reproduces her at aeternam. A stranded fugitive falls in love with her image, and tries desperately to find a way to enter her world of pure make-believe. (5)
For some, there is a very fine line between the youth of the protagonist and their own, as the gaze cast by the camera is of contiguity, familiarity, intimacy, for example Äta sova dö (Eat Sleep Die), Gabriela Pichler’s remarkable first feature, which, having previously received the Critics Week Audience Award in Venice, was US-premiered at the AFI, and received the Grand Jury Awards for the New Auteurs Competition. (6) At 32, Pichler is older than her barely-out-of-teenagehood heroine, Raša Abdulahović (Nermina Lukac), but she shares a similar working-class immigrant background: born in Sweden of Bosnian and Austrian parents, Pichler used to work in a cookie factory; this was, however, before the economic crisis hit Europe. The fictional heroine, Raša, a young Muslim woman of Bosnian origin, is employed in a vegetable packing plant, but her job is soon going to be on the line.
Eat Sleep Dieintroduces Raša as a bundle of tomboyish physical energy; in the pre-credit sequence she is romping on the floor and drinking beer during a party with her co-workers. In the following shots, she introduces a new employee to the speed of the assembly line: fast, efficient, no-nonsense, joking but not letting anything standing in the way of the “job well done”. Raša’s physicality, and the way she walks, moves and inhabits the cinematic space echoes Emilie Dequenne’s performance in Rosetta (1999); indeed Pichler acknowledges her debt toward the Dardenne brothers and shares some of their concerns for the realistic description of the spaces (factories, dwellings) occupied by the working class. Yet the social texture presented in Rosetta was smoother; there was hope that somewhere a job, no matter how shitty, would be available. Rosetta’s problem was to cross the line between her marginalisation and the lives of “regular people”. The world faced by Raša is falling apart – at a time when a well-adjusted, super-efficient worker (who can “pack twelve bags of lettuce in five seconds”) can, one day, while on the assembly line, see a man in a suit entering the plant carrying a register with the list of workers that will have to be laid off that day. This is an extraordinary scene, which Pichler first films in a series of long shots (Raša and two women working) edited with panning shots of the man walking on the floor, partially hidden by the machines, escorting out a woman; medium close-up of Raša looking intently while behind her the man escorts out yet another worker; panning over the faces of the worried workers at different points of the assembly line, immersed in the constant mechanical hok-hok-hok of the lettuce-wrapping machines; extreme close-ups around Raša’s face and hands as she loses her poise and drops the lettuce; long shot of her as she leaves her work station, followed by the man with the register calling her name; extreme long shot as she runs out of the factory, in the countryside, still in her work clothes (white blouse, dark apron, blue plastic gloves and a plastic cap encasing her hair). The rug has literally been pulled from under her feet.
Like Rosetta, Raša has to take care of a parent – but her relationship to her father, “Pappan” (Milan Dragisic) is miles away from both the sad contempt that Dardenne’s protagonist felt for her mother and the neo psychosexual look at dysfunctional families that we have been treated with from Festen (The Celebration, 1998) and Magnolia (1999). Raša gives massages and baths to her father because he has damaged his back doing hard labour as an immigrant. She goes to the doctor with him because his Swedish is not good enough to deal with the medical bureaucracy. He is also a caring, proud and stubborn man – when at home he cooks for his daughter and, instead of applying for welfare he’d rather take on an even harder seasonal job in Norway with some of his buddies. Pichler has a keen eye for the moments of tenderness between father and daughter. They fall asleep watching television on the couch together, her arm around his shoulders, an empty dish in their hands and an unfinished jigsaw puzzle on the table. They bond through the subtle details of their outsider status. “We are Muslim, you know”, she tells her co-workers. Yet rifts occur: she is embarrassed when “Pappan”, in his bad Swedish, insults a black man by calling him “a foreigner”.
Richler does not construct Raša’s youth as a selling point in the narrative. It’s part of the curve of a working-class life, with teenagers starting to work fresh out of school. Of a life threatened to be reduced to its bare bones, for outside of work, there are only three things left: you eat, you sleep and then you die. Youth isn’t going to save you from this and, in the larger scheme of things, when the economy goes bad, it matters even less. Pichler lovingly depicts Raša’s friendship with the older workers of the plant – embodied by non-professional actors who are given a chance to fictionalise their stories for the camera. A petite Thai woman sings a ballad whose lyrics she won’t translate; a plump blonde with piercings and rings all over her face breaks down when she talks about her illness; an older worker exhibits long, crimson-lacquered fingernails even when she’s in the plant or the unemployment office. Weaving a texture of fictional situations informed by memory and documentary moments, Pichler’s mise en scène reaches a state of grace.
On the other hand, 29 year-old Maja Miloš set out to create a divide between her teenage heroine and herself, and, therefore, to construct her as a spectacle. “I am not like Jasna,” she stated at the Q & A, explaining that the idea of the film came from an article she had read a couple of years ago (I believe I read the same one) about teenage girls posting or texting nude pictures of themselves. “This,” she concluded, “is a universal trend”. This may be what’s wrong with Klip (Clip), that, shot in Serbia, could have offered a fascinating snapshot of the disarray affecting young people at the aftermath of a war in which their country had lost and been vilified in the international arena – to be honest, there were instances of nationalistic macho posturing among young boys which I found quite fascinating. Yet, the subject of Clip is somewhere else, in the specularisation of teenage sex, as hard-partying Jasna (Isadora Simijonovic) keeps recording her trysts on her cell phone. There are precious moments revealing female sexuality and the way young girls talk to each other – Jasna describing a blow-job in endearing terms – but Clip is constructed with a commercial flair, as a three-act structure though which the bad girl gets what was coming to her, and then is blessed with a “love-conquers-all” ending.
However, when working with teenage performers, it is illegal to have them perform sex acts in front of the camera. To protect his actors, even the mature ones, when shooting La Vie de Jésus (1997) or L’Humanité (1999), Bruno Dumont recruited porn professionals and inserted shots of their bodies at the appropriate moments. Now with digital special effects, it’s very easy to show a young girl’s body being penetrated by an erect cock by manipulating the image. Even montaged, Dumont’s sex scenes represented something of the emergency of reality – sweat, heat, movements that may not have been entirely in sync. Here the scene is competently filmed, but remote and mechanical. None of these exhilarating discoveries, hits and misses, “don’t put it that way, it hurts”, “if you do this I can’t feel you”, that make up a young person’s sexual education. In this well-oiled machine, the human factor is missing, and what we get is a specular image posturing as a teenage girl – as proven by what may be the most ridiculous scene in the film, in which Jasna performs “doggie-style” for bad-boy Djole, cutely barking on all four and moving her ass with the poise of a porn star. From her bio, it’s clear that Miloš is very interested in the erotic, which I respect a lot. Here she uses teenage bodies as a blank screen to project her fantasies.
Vista at the End of the Highway
Mike Ott’s Pearblossom Hwy is an elegant follow-up to his previous feature, Littlerock (2010), that had received the Audience Award in the Young Americans section (as well as an Independent Spirit Awards the following January). The film was weaving an unlikely friendship between a non-English speaking Japanese woman (actress/writer/stand up comedian Atsuko Okatsuka, who had contributed to the screenplay) and a loveable loser, Cory (Cory Zacharia). While the situation was fictional (two Japanese siblings stranded in a small desert community), the characterisation of Cory’s character was treading a thin line between documentary and fiction, as Zacharia wasn’t so much “performing” as playing himself. Similarly, the scenes showing the young residents of Littlerock partying, drinking or getting high projected the feeling of being largely improvised. Ott grew up and went to college in the Santa Clarita area (Valencia, Newhall), a 45-minute drive from Los Angeles, beyond the San Fernando Valley, and so far his work has explored an area in a 20-mile radius Northeast of his birthplace. He met Zacharia when shooting a feature-length documentary, Kid Icarus (2008), and designed Littlerock with the idea of pairing him with Okatsuka; now the two performers are reunited in Pearblossom Hwy that starts in the city of Lancaster, ten miles away. The title is the name of the two-lane road that connects Lancaster and Littlerock to State Route 14 (a very scenic route, it was most famously photographed by David Hockney).
Tantalisingly close to, but cultural miles apart from Los Angeles, surrounded by the Angeles Forest, this is sunburnt, parched, arid country – the leftovers of the frontier mentality, a spotty sprawl of trailer parks, para-industrial spaces, trucks crossing the landscape, flat motels, smoky red-neck bars, former boom towns experiencing reverse of fortune, orchard and fruit processing plants, communities forgotten by history, high unemployment and blocked future, the red-voting patches in the blue state, where impoverished white people resent the steady influx of Hispanics, blame immigrants for their misfortune, believe in Jesus, racial supremacy and booze. Their kids are lost, and bored, and it is their voice that Ott strives to articulate, from the point of view of being “one of the guys” himself. In Pearblossom Hwy, he welds the narrative texture with Zacharia’s personal history and his desire to travel to San Francisco and meet the biological father he never knew. Ott gave him a camera and asked him to record his thoughts. He then interspersed the resulting footage, a series of endearingly sincere monologues to the camera, providing insights into Zacharia’s state of mind – from confusion and loss to issues of sexual identity – that in turn fed the fictional character. Ott skilfully weaves in and out of the documentary and the narrative, does indeed follow Zacharia to San Francisco and films, in long shot, his meeting with a man living in a trailer – but the scene is fiction.
What makes, however, Pearblossom Hwy so haunting is the role played by Okatsuka – both the lead actress and the co-screenwriter. Called Anna by her American acquaintances and Atchan by her Japanese family, her character is a woman of multiple identities. Living with hard-working relatives and applying for US citizenship – almost against her will, it seems – she dreams of flying to Japan to visit her ailing grandmother. She makes extra money by quietly turning tricks – Caucasian men excited by her “exoticism” or Japanese who scold her for not speaking her mother tongue well enough. As Cory’s best friend, she accompanies him, and his former Marine older brother (John Brotherton), to San Francisco.
Here Ott’s mise en scène espouses Okatsuka’s point of view, keeping Atchan and Anna separated from each other. Japan is an off-screen presence through phone calls she makes and receives, the sex scenes occur in a space disjointed from the one occupied by Cory, and they are shot in a fragmented, visually complex way that foregrounds Atchan’s gaze and keep the johns in the shadows. Ott seamlessly pairs together these two kinds of performances – Zacharia’s spontaneous, improvised fragments, and Okatsuka’s high professionalism. He offsets them against superbly shot landscapes – more expressionist for Atchan, as when she is walking at night on a road still wet from a recent rain with a truck passing behind her – more realistic, but also magical for Cory, who see traces of his dreams everywhere he goes, even in the wastelands where he inscribes his name with a felt pen: “Cory was here”. Atchan becomes the true centre of gravity of the film, which draws an arc – starting on one of Cory’s monologues, it concludes on a shot of her walking in the dark. A road movie, Pearblossom Hwy is also a transformative journey – which is why it is not linearly edited, often cutting from one space or one moment to another without continuity – deciphering “the reality” of America through the gaze of the displaced immigrant. Ott takes Zacharia – the boy he never was, but who is so close to him – as a vector to reach the inassimilable Other, Anna/Atchan, and she looks back at him.
Also shot in the Santa Clarita Valley, Only the Young, the first feature documentary by Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, won the Young Americans Audience Award and has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Born in Santa Clarita, Tippet went to college there and paired with fellow student Mims to work on the short documentary Thompson (2009), shot near the school. Since then, this once relatively affluent community has suffered from the economic crisis. Lawns are manicured, swimming pools abound, but there are also enclaves of increased working-class poverty. While checking out the new Santa Clarita Skate Park, Tippet and Mims met high schoolers Garrison and Kevin, who had been close friends since they were 13, and, to boot, part of a Christian (Baptist) skateboarding community. They followed their subjects for about 18 months (during which the boys went through a variety of haircuts and hair colours, some of them a tad unfortunate), editing as they were shooting, reassessing their point of view at each step, and the film bears the traces of a genuine, ongoing discovery. Four minutes into the film, in walks Skye, an attractive 16 year-old redhead with cut-off jeans. “My Mom’s dead, my Dad’s in prison, my grandparents are awesome,” she says in guise of introduction. Indeed her beloved “Pappa” has taken care of her since her heroin-addicted mother lost custody, a couple of days after her birth. Skye goes to the same church as Garrison and Kevin, and entertains a complex relationship with both of them. She is first introduced as the former’s girlfriend, but they break up almost inadvertently. “He said we must talk, she thought he wanted to break up and told everybody about it,” says Kevin, who, as it turns out, is also sweet on her and eventually manages to get a kiss – then thoroughly apologises to his buddy.
The two boys remain close even though they evolve differently. Kevin dreams of winning a skateboarding competition in Arizona to get college money (as his parents can’t afford the tuition) while Garrison saves to buy a second hand car to impress his new girlfriend, a tall hip-hop dancer called Kristen. We learn that Skye never kissed Garrison, which made their relationship very special (“I’ve been through enough kisses to know they’re a waste of time unless there’s something behind it.”); she misses him but then starts dating “dumb and sensitive” Robin. One of the most compelling cinematic heroines of late, Skye projects an emotional maturity that debunks clichés about teenagers. Life, however, takes its toll – she receives unexpected news about her biological parents, Pappa loses his home due to foreclosure and she has no idea where she is going to live; Kevin may move to Tennessee with his parents after graduating from high school, yet his relationship to Garrison is the most important thing in his life. With aching, precious, dead-on accuracy, Tippet and Mims capture the elusive, shimmering, versatile quality of life that “only the young” have – when everything is possible and everything difficult, when you have dreams you dare not articulate, when you build secret hideouts in abandoned houses, take your dates to derelict romantic spaces, skate in empty swimming pools, are on the verge of something bigger than you, but think you’ll be young forever. (7)
The guests, upon arriving, went to her with low bows…, and after that no one took any notice of her.
– Pushkin (8)
What makes youth a challenge to represent is that, even as a pure image, it’s a transient stage. The Countess in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades starts as the “Vénus moscovite” who captivates Paris when she is 20 and 60 years later has become a curmudgeon invisible in society balls. For an actress, the stakes are high, and, with the complicity of the luminous Jane Adams, Joe Swanberg (the subject of a spotlight in last year’s AFI), (9) acutely stages a series of micro-moments, minute decisions, half-baked encounters that make up the life of an actress passed 40. Adams, who co-wrote the screenplay of All the Light in the Sky, had already acted in Swanberg’s Alexander the Last (2009), as well as in Silver Bullet (2011). She also has an impressive acting career, both on-stage and in film and television. She was Joy Jordan in Todd Solondz’s splendid Happiness (1998) and Nancy in Rob Margolies’ Lifelines (2008) and has worked, mostly in supportive roles in a number of offbeat, edgy productions. (10) She has known the heartbreaks of the industry as well as its successes. In All the Light in the Sky, she delivers a soulful, understated and courageous performance as Marie, who gracefully treads the line between being “a working actress” and “a struggling actress”. She is still dependent on her agent’s phone calls, still learns that “the part went to somebody else”, but she’s not a kid anymore. She is attractive to men yet single, lives alone in an apartment spectacularly overlooking Malibu Beach, gets into her latex suit every morning to surf, and has an affectionate relationship with her neighbour, Rusty (director Larry Fessenden) who, however, seems to prefer the company of younger women. And she can’t sleep at night.
Almost non-narrative, the film is a sensitive snapshot of the emotional landscape Marie wanders in while shedding the trappings of youth: she is neither bitter nor sad, she is energetic, fit and beautiful, she simply has to come to terms that she may not have the life and the career dreamt about when she was twenty – and accept that, in her limitations, she still can/has to function as a mentor and inspiration for somebody younger. Arrives Faye (mumblecore actress and director Sophia Takal), Marie’s niece with a troubled family background, who, partially out of admiration for her, has decided to pursue an acting career. During her short visit, Marie intelligently expresses what is means to her, as a woman and as an actress, to realize that she is no longer the focal point of masculine gaze. However, men are everywhere in the landscape, and Swanberg knows like nobody else how to capture these ill-mastered situations created from lust, the desire to connect and the fear of the unknown. A particularly successful subplot involves Marie and Dan (writer Kent Osborne), who helps her repair her toilet seat and then affix a coat rack to her wall. They eventually end up in his bed – although he made it clear he is married with kids. In the morning Marie sneaks out, only to realise that she left her car keys in Dan’s place, and, all flustered, has to wake him up to get them back. When she returns home, the coat rack, poorly fastened, falls on the floor. It’s comical, but also humbling, to realise that being older does not spare you awkward one-night stands or messy sexual trysts; they just don’t happen that often. After Faye’s departure, Swanberg returns to Marie’s ambiguous closeness with Rusty, who likes her enough to spend long evenings with her and even kiss her, but not enough to sleep with her.
Minus a well-received excursion in the field of “adult” puppet shows (Greg the Bunny, 2002 and 2005), Sean Baker’s work was centred on marginalised populations in the New York/New Jersey area (where he was born): disenfranchised suburban youth in Four Letter Words (2000), illegal Chinese immigrants (Take Out, 2004, co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) and African street hustlers (Prince of Broadway, 2008). On the other hand, Starlet takes place down West, in the San Fernando Valley north of Hollywood, where middle-class suburban houses coexist with one of the largest porn industries in the world. This is where Baker locates the unlikely encounter of 21 year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel), a girl who struts about in hot pants under the California sun and makes a living selling her youth to the camera, and 85 year-old Sadie (an arresting performance by newcomer Besedka Johnson) who survives her state of invisibility as a senior by being a cantankerous recluse with a taste for bingo. Thankfully, Baker doesn’t connect the dots, allows for ellipses, hits and misses (one episode involves somebody being sprayed with maze… so much for human closeness). Even more, he does not reveal Jane’s profession until about 45 minutes into the film – though he keeps sprinkling tiny cues from time to time – so we can focus, without preconceived ideas, on the development of this friendship.
One of the cues lies in the title of the film, but we are quickly side tracked, for “Starlet” is the name of Jane’s Chihuahua dog – and a male to boot. In fact, things are not what they seem. Jane, who apart from Starlet does not have any close friends in town – and no romantic interest – is the one actively seeking Sadie’s friendship. For all her blonde poise, all-American smile and nonchalant lifestyle, she’s the needy one. Could it be because, having turned her youth into a commodity, she is acutely aware of its fragility, its transience? There is no denying, on the other hand, Sadie’s hidden pain and loneliness. So maybe this mismatch is a perfect match; Baker and the actors seem to have a lot of fun exploring the choreography of interactions between these two women who move through space at two different rhythms.
While Starlet mostly hits the right notes, I will disagree with most of my esteemed colleagues on a minor point. Although Stella Maeve’s performance as Melissa is commendable, I find her character as a roommate from hell, a strung-out, bitchy, unreliable, drug-addicted porn starlet to be on the trite side of cliché. If she’s mostly acting as a foil for the female friendship that Jane could only find in Sadie, that’s a bit facile… On the other hand, kudos to the performance of Bonee-the-dog as Starlet. Providing gentle comic relief and cuteness galore, he moves the narration along a couple of times; at one crucial moment, for example, entrusted to Sadie for a few hours while Jane is at work, he decides to act as a dog and disappears. Sadie walks about the streets in her neighbourhood, under the relentless sun, and her distress is palpable. Baker doesn’t show the return of the prodigal animal, but provides a reverse angle on Sadie looking very upset, holding him, telling Jane she “can’t handle this anymore” and wants to end the friendship. Yet Jane’s youthful persistence prevails… up to a certain point, and, later, everything hinges on how much Sadie is willing to take the risk of trusting Jane. Baker leaves the door of interpretation open, interrupting the narration as a car has stopped on its way to the airport… in a cemetery of all places.
If Laurence Anyways (shown in the World Cinema section) finds its place in a reflection about the transience of youth, it’s not only because of its subject-matter – a love story that unfolds over twelve-odd years, from the late 1980s on – but also because the positioning if its author. Xavier Dolan, born in 1989, became a household name because of his youth, having directed and starred in his first semi-autobiographical feature, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother, 2009) at the age of 20. The film was also refreshingly open-minded and queer, baring the ambiguous feelings that a super-educated gay teenager could have for a less sophisticated and nagging mother. With Les Amours Imaginaires (Heartbeats, 2010), he played the apex of a triangle – one gay boy, his best girlfriend, and the devastatingly seductive young man they both fall in love with. A French-Canadian production (MK2 and Lyla Films were involved), Laurence Anyways gave him the opportunity to work with a bigger budget and a real movie star. Louis Garrel (who had a small part in Les Amours), originally cast, changed his mind and was replaced by a splendid Melvil Poupaud (himself a child prodigy, he started his acting career in Raúl Ruiz’s La Ville des pirates (City of Pirates, 1983) at the age of ten), who, being 10 years older than Garrel, adds an additional gravitas and poignancy to the part. Laurence Anyways is the story of a literature professor who is passionately in love with his wife, Fred (an award-winning performance by Québécoise actress Suzanne Clément), yet wants to go through life dressed as a woman. Crisis, surprise, anger, reconciliation, acceptation, tenderness, separation, improbable reunion, flight forward, desire to escape onto a magical island – the couple tears itself apart yet remains bonded through love and desire. Meanwhile Laurence creates a scandal going to teach in full make-up and high heels. It will be a while before he can tolerate a wig (he finds them “itchy”) or grows his hair long. In the interval he will lose his job, alienate his parents, get beaten by a redneck in a bar, move out of the conjugal apartment, finds shelter in a surreal community of artistic drag queens and becomes serious about his writing career. Fred evolves too – from daring to accept Laurence, the man she loves, as he/she wants to be, to realising that it will never work, but that it was the great love of her life.
Like Dolan, Laurence persists. He loves women but finds it unbearable to live in a man’s body. Once he crosses the line and walks into the lycée in high heels, there is no turning back. Yet time goes by, and Dolan does not eschew the salient point of many transgender subjects’ lives – through a plurality of obstacles they are often able to experience their new identity in middle age only and grow old in a gender they didn’t inhabit in their youth. The film ends in a bittersweet melancholy loop. A successful writer, dressed in dowdy feminine clothes, Laurence is interviewed by a journalist. “I decided to go down the slope in a woman’s body.” “Every woman goes down that slope.” “After having climbed it up first.” Laurence will never have the experience of being a young woman. Or did he not? A coda shows us the moment he met and seduced Fred – on a film set where she was a script girl. “What is your name?” “Laurence… Laurence Anyways”, he says, winking. In French Laurence is both a male and a female name. At the youthful moment he fell in love, Laurence became a woman for Fred’s gaze. Only she wasn’t aware of it…
Other films were looking at youth as a spectacle you can contemplate (safely?) from the other shore, either with sympathy or suspicion, such as Michel Franco’s After Lucia. In spite of the accolades the film received, it is difficult to ascertain the point of view from which unfolds. It accurately names the place of a void left in Roberto (Hernán Mendoza)’s and Alejandra’s (Tessa Ía González Norvind) (11) lives after the death of his wife and her mother, Lucia, and is bookended by two unpredictable actions by Roberto. In the opening sequence, he picks up a car retrofitted at great expense, drives it in the middle of the city and simply walks away from it. We’ll learn that this was the car Lucia was driving at the moment of the fatal accident – and that Alejandra was there as well, as Lucia was teaching her how to drive. Did Roberto get rid of the car to spare his daughter painful recollections? But then, why have it retrofitted? There is the sense of an archaic ritual, though which Roberto is trying to exorcise his sense of loss – as well as his rage.
Violence is muted, subterranean. We never see the accident, not even (mercifully) in flashback, yet its impact is always present. Father and daughter move from their hometown of Puerto Vallarta for Mexico City, where Roberto looks for a new job as a chef, but lets his short temper get the best of him. Alejandra goes to a new school but has difficulty adjusting. She fails a drug test (she had smoked pot weeks before), which already spells trouble. At a weekend outing, she has sex with a schoolmate who records it on his cell phone. Later the video appears on Facebook. Branded a “slut”, Alejandra faces harassment, is threatened with rape and bullied in increasingly violent ways. When she comes home, she has cleaned herself, is calm and composed, unable to confide in her father. The events depicted have been collaged from various news reporting, and Franco films them clinically, as if to say these things do happen in high school; we should be aware of it – with conviction but without real inside knowledge. Alejandra remains a cipher, taking everything with a blank face. Is she keeping silence to protect her father, whose pain she witnesses? Or is it because, secretly, she feels she may have caused her mother’s death and consequently, “deserves to be punished”? Or is she angry at her father for having taken her out of Porto Vallarta?
Twice we see Alejandra buying a bus ticket to return home. The second time, after a particularly abject turn of bullying during a school field trip by the seaside, she stages her own disappearance and swims away. Her schoolmates assume she is dead and report her missing. They cave in and start accusing each other when interrogated by school authorities and the police. Meanwhile Alejandra is hiding in her former house. Once again, her father is overcome by rage, and commits an act of cold, brutal violence. His motivations, however, are clear; here the film treads a dangerous line, almost by suggesting a possible identification with his revenge. Yet Alejandra’s character continues to elude us. Youth is looked at from afar, as a set of strange behaviours by callous barbarians and lost victims we don’t understand.
The latest product of Borderline Films, (12) and following the critically acclaimed Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer, by 29 year-old Antonio Campos, is elegantly staged and Joe Anderson’s wide-lens cinematography, with backgrounds in soft focus and images cropped by framing and lighting, is exquisite. The protagonist, Simon, is a self-declared specialist in “the relationship between the eye and the brain”, so the film starts on interesting premises about the complex structure of voyeurism. That it falls short on this account may be due to the choice of an unlikeable protagonist – a Mama boy’s from a privileged US background (Brady Corbet) who has come to Paris to nurse a heartbreak. Lonely, he roams the streets and ends up in the back room of a club with a hooker, Victoria (Mati Diop). When Simon is attacked and robbed of his belongings by street thugs, at the very moment he had given back the key to a borrowed apartment, he seeks Victoria for help and she puts him up.
Unable to sleep he wakes up her and asks that she speak to him. Victoria reveals that her name is Nouria, and recounts the night when, pregnant with a baby boy, she woke up bleeding, but her husband forced himself on her before driving her to the hospital. “Did you understand what I said?”, she asks. “Yes, replies Simon, “you have a son.” Nouria says nothing. The moment defines the structure of the film, woven in and out two distinct performative lines that come from different (cultural, linguistic, socio-economic) spaces, with different logic. Corbet’s competent but almost painful characterisation of a stuck-up, narcissistic, despondent creep functions as both narrative presentation and critique of certain forms of masculinity. Simon looks at Paris and at women as exotic objects that are only props to feed or assuage his internal turmoil. On the other hand, Mati Diop’s generous performance as Victoria/Nouria transcends the clichés and opens the film toward a vista much larger than Simon’s concerns – Paris ethnic and racial make-up, the existence of working-class banlieues at the outskirts of the city, how to transcend the choices you make to survive.
Mati Diop, credited as co-screenwriter (she collaborated to the writing of her lines) is the daughter of the Paris-based Senegalese musician Wasis Diop, and the niece of the legendary director of Touki Bouki (1970) and Hyenas (Hyènes, 1992), Djibril Diop Mambéty (1945-98). A film school graduate, she met Claire Denis who cast her as the half-West Indian half-German heroine of 35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums, 2008). She is also a film director. (13) The “intelligence and intuition for cinema” Denis has spotted in her shines at every moment she’s on screen, and allows her to create a three-dimensional, personable character in Nouria. The two narrative lines intersect, but do not entirely connect. These gaps are both the subject of the film as its flaws. “You never really understood me,” Simon’s ex emails him, straight to the point. Simon was so obsessed with his problematic youth that he didn’t really see, and even less hear, Nouria’s youth displayed at his side.
Sun Don’t Shine by Amy Seimetz starts at the apex of a descending curve with the iconic low angle close-up of a young woman looking dishevelled, hysterical and very distressed against the bright sky. Eschewing exposition, context, explanation, the film occupies a precarious territory – revisiting the neo-noir with troubled characters on the lam under Florida’s blinding sun. Stubbornly shot in super-16 rather than the ubiquitous DV, it is also imbued with a certain classicism – the almost magical tropes of a genre drenched in an archaic sense of tragedy. So the card played by the mise en scène goes beyond pure realism and spins a tale of amour fou between two contemporary losers, Crystal and Leo.
Since she first appeared as Nina in Goran Dukić’s Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), Seimetz has been active in the independent film scene in many capacities – as a collaborator to Joe Swanberg (which involves wearing many hats), (14) a producer (for Barry Jenkins’s elegant and sensitive Medicine for Melancholy , among others) and an actress for edgy, polyvalent directors who often blur the boundary between acting, directing, writing and crewing: Jay Keitel (also the DP for Sun Don’t Shine), Lawrence Michael Levine, Lena Dunham, Kentucker Audley, David Robert Mitchell, Adam Wingard, Cherie Saulter, Josh Slates, Dan Bush and Tomer Almagor. Her performance as Francine, an all-night diner waitress in Megan Griffiths’s moody Off Hours, was one of the most talked-about in the 2011 edition of Sundance. She also graces two recently completed indies, that ended up in the 2013 Sundance line-up (see report in this issue), Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Yen Tan’s Pit Stop.
This somewhat explains why Seimetz has such a gift for directing actors – in particular Kate Lyn Sheil, one of mumblecore’s most endearing muses (who was starring with her and Joe Swanberg in the latter’s Silver Bullets, 2011). Playing against her high-wire intensity, filmmaker/actor Kentucker Audley is burning at a slower pace – he is the man in charge, he keeps his feelings to himself, projecting a sullen face of internalised nervousness. You know from the beginning it’s not going to work – it hasn’t worked for a long time – yet these two are bound by what they have done together.
Seimetz catches the story of their mutual attraction when it’s already too late – we are not privy to their first meeting, the sweet beginning of their romance; she depicts Leo and Crystal as they are already getting on each other’s nerves. He can’t stand her hysteria, her jealousy; her little stories bore him; she clings to him because there is nothing else, in a consuming passion that sometimes resembles hatred. In about twenty minutes Leo goes from telling Crystal how much he likes her, to shouting “I hate you so much right now!” to the devastating “Don’t touch me, you’re a fucking liar!… When you see what happened, you know it was your fucking fault.”
Seimetz does not ask the spectator to sympathise with her characters, neither does she favour identification We are so used, when beautiful young people are portrayed onscreen, to project ourselves into us, that the film is uncomfortable at times. During the second half of the film, Crystal wears a bubble-gum pink mini-dress (“borrowed” from a former girlfriend of Leo’s), made of some cheap material, with dirty sneakers. Crystal’s “bad taste” and her silly stories could denote some contempt for the working-class culture of the protagonist. They also function as alienation devices, inserting a subtle gap between the story and its representation, the point of view of the narrator and that of the protagonists who, in their own words “don’t know shit”. The bright pink of the dress is part of a masterful strategy of expressionist colours that imbue the film. After Crystal has totally pissed off Leo in a bar, she joins him in the dark, and plays at seducing him as if he was a stranger, talking about him in the third person: “I love him, I really love him. I think he’s the only person in the world that really understands me.”
This prompts a tender moment of touching and smooching, captured realistically, in a medium shot. Seimetz cuts abruptly to a reverse angle, bathed in an improbable red light, of a tight close up of the two embracing, and Leo spelling what he likes about Crystal: with her, he can talk freely. The set-up (light, framing, music) is magical, and Crystal’s radiant smile is a thing to behold… an ever-fleeting moment during which the downward spiral is interrupted. The pink dress is off-screen, the woman wearing it is not hysterical or ridiculous, she is a beautiful girl in love. We understand the feeling that Crystal and Leo are desperately trying to hold on to – but this was before, when they were just two young lovers. Now they are criminals on the lam. The noir genre has reclaimed them, sweeping youth and passion into the past, and, like watching a train wreck, we see this process unfolding. Remain the shadows, the hatred, the resentment, the unavoidable end. They will grow old behind bars, and they know it.
I is another
Un soir de demi-brume à Londres
Un voyou qui ressemblait à
Mon amour vint à ma rencontre
Et le regard qu’il me jeta
Me fit baisser les yeux de honte.
– Guillaume Apollinaire (15)
When thinking about our own past, we all have something to rejoice at, something to regret, and something to be ashamed of, as Apollinaire – who was 23 when he published La Chanson du Mal-Aimé – intuited it. The roads we followed and those we ignored, the loves we pursued and those we lost. There is also the question of political utopia; as Olivier Assayas wrote in an essay on Guy Debord in 1994, “every generation has, for a brief instant, the power to act upon the world,” and, in the future, it will be judged for “its ability to have done so.” (16) The diegetic process, especially in the case of Assayas, allows us to be simultaneously le voyou (hoodlum) coming to meet us beyond the fourth wall of the cinematic space, flinging a look at us, and our here-and-now, sobered by the realisation that we didn’t fulfil all the promises of our youth. The myth of the doppelganger is pre-cinematic but, since the silent era, cinema has visualised it in powerful and imaginative ways. Mise en scène introduces a split in the subject – through an exchange of gaze between the younger self on the screen and the older director/spectator.
Something in the Air (Après Mai) is an almost literal reply to the question of how to represent what we were from the point of view of what we have become – unsurprisingly since Assayas’s oeuvre often mines aspects of his biography to construct his narratives. That he should tackle the exhilarating and difficult years that followed May ’68 in France is even less surprising, coming after Carlos (2010). In an earlier piece for Senses,(17) I argued that his three-part instalment on the life of the famous terrorist was no less intimate and personal than, say, L’Eau froide (Cold Water, 1994). Assayas came of age in the early ‘70s, and here he revisits these years, reconstructing the boy he was rather than the man Carlos may have been. In both films, he confronts extensive research with the traces left by memory, resorting to narrative imagination to fill the gaps. What the two films have in common is the elusiveness of the subject – the boy Assayas was is no more, Carlos a cipher.
Beyond the narrative – a coming of age story in the years following the May movement; the “apprenticeship” of a teenager, Gilles (Clément Metayer) living in a wealthy suburb of Paris; the portrait of the filmmaker as a young man, as a lover between two women – what has always interested Assayas “in cinema is not cinema itself, but what cinema, as an exploratory tool, catches in its net”, and that you can, “by confronting [your] memories with archival documents, but also by reconstructing… the abstract, imaginary world [your younger self] lived in… insert the invisible into a world of sensuous experience.” (18) These reflections were inspired to Assayas by his repeating viewings of Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975), which poses the question on how to represent the voyou of your past when he’s looking at someone that could be you – but is not, for you are absent from the diegesis. Such is the “mirror effect” that can be used to represent a fugacious youth, as incisively analysed by Rashmi Doraiswami:
The mirror, then reflects not the protagonist for he has absented himself from being reflected, but historical events presented as sensuous memory. The mirror has been placed in the other, for memory is called forth not just by the protagonist, but by so many others he remembers… The unfolding of narrative is thus a reverse one: not of a protagonist unfolding a narrative, but a history unfolding a protagonist. (19)
When Assayas conjures memories, he does so from the point of view of a group of people (Désordre [Disorder, 1986]; Fin août début septembre [Late August, Early September, 1998]), or, as in Après Mai, or, in a way, Carlos, from the point of view of a generation. And he does so by (re)staging not so much actual events as their sensorial or emotional traces – the smoke of the tear gas during a demonstration, the fire in the country house where the first girlfriend, Laure (Carole Combe) is lost a second time, the moment the second girlfriend, Christine (Lola Creton) is swallowed by the Paris night, the psychedelic light show, the comings and goings on the set of a dinosaurs + Nazis + girl in bikini feature in Ealing Studios, the pulsation of a screen on which an experimental film is projected. The sum of these moments, of the gestures (precisely reproduced) that accompanied them, of the intellectual discoveries (Situationism, the writings of Simon Leys) that chartered them, do not add up to a “well-rounded narrative”, but to an elliptical curve in which as much is lost as it is gained. “Real life is somewhere else,” said Rimbaud, and Gilles, who was too young at the time of the original events of May ‘68, experiences his powerlessness to change the world, to keep the women he loves, as he feels his “unlived” youth passing him by even before it’s over. Maybe youth can only be experienced after the fact, as a work of art.
In Tabu Miguel Gomes also invokes this curvature of time that allows past and present to look at each other, and, by using fictional characters, he entirely eliminates himself from the diegesis (while in Après Mai, Assayas was reintroduced by the fact that Gilles was his doppelganger). Yet, to quote Doraiswami again, “the looking glass reflects history and the protagonist finds himself constituted by these memories” (ibid). Every Portuguese subject is addressed by the history of colonialism in its former “territories”, so invoking the (sinful) youth of others creates the artificial gaze of the voyou who, in turns, looks at you, constituting these memories for you. Tabu is made of such representations that fold onto themselves, like a Moebius strip. The opening sequence shows a colonial expedition in Africa… It’s just one of the many layered textures of the film: a faux archival b/w film, watched, in the first part of the feature (“Paradise Lost”, shot in 35 mm high contrast b/w), by a middle-aged woman, Pilar (Teresa Madruga) in contemporary Lisbon. Of her life and childhood, we’ll know little, except that she is a civil rights activist with a chequered social life; Gomes posits her at the intersection of two fields of (blocked) vision: the nostalgic colonial film, and the presence of her elderly neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral). Intrigued, then sympathetic, Pilar has only access to snippets of information. Aurora, estranged from her only daughter, lives alone with her African housekeeper, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), and has a serious gambling problem. In moments of paranoia that become more and more frequent, she accuses Santa of victimising her at her daughter’s orders; it is true that it’s the latter, from her Canadian exile, who pays Santa’s salary. When Aurora dies, Pilar obeys her last wishes, as she requested a gentleman of the name of Gianluca Ventura be contacted. She finds him in a nursing home, and his narration triggers the second part, “Paradise”, shot also in b/w, but in 16mm, that takes place in an unspecified Portuguese colony, at the foothill of Mount Tabu (named more for its metaphorical and cinephilic resonance than for geographic accuracy) fifty years before.
As much as Murnau’s film, the film echoes Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn: a forbidden love story among white people unfolding in a colonial setting; a man endorsing a murder committed by the woman he loves; the woman slowly losing her mind due to guilt. In 1949, Under Capricorn (later salvaged by international critics) was a commercial failure, maybe because it alluded to a certain discontent in the colonial state of things that mainstream audiences weren’t ready to watch. Now, we are well attuned to the pitfalls of colonialism, and what the First World did in African countries in looking at us right in the eyes. Young Aurora (Ana Moreira), married to a farm owner, bored and pregnant to boot, falls for dashing adventurer Ventura (Carloto Cotta) who drives cross-Africa on his motorbike and plays music in an avant-garde band. This ends up very badly, in a scandal quickly attributed to “native unrest” (Black people paying the price of white guilt) – and one may understand why Aurora’s daughter does not want to have anything to do with her. Gomes tenderly captures the moments of irrepressible passion between the protagonists, as a short-lived fire that consumed everything around it. Aurora and Ventura lived their last decades alone, in the same city of Lisbon, but never saw each other again. Tabu’s intricate strategy articulates the mechanism of loss and memory: what you had when you were young cannot be retrieved, but it will haunt you forever.
It may be Holy Motors that offers the most original representation of the wandering voyou. Leos Carax, former boy genius/bad boy of French cinema (he directed Boy Meets Girls in 1984 when he was 24), plays the part, renamed “The Sleeper”, as a man in pyjamas who discovers that a door in his apartment opens onto a darkened movie theatre, in which spectators, strangely frozen, are shot frontally, staring in the direction of the camera, as a self-conscious echo of the last scene in King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928). After this overture (shot in desaturated colours, to evoke a certain b/w feeling), Carax exits the diegesis and the mise en scène recentres on the highly versatile actor Denis Lavant, his long-time accomplice and stand-in (Lavant starred in three of his films: Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang [Bad Blood, 1986] and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf [The Lovers on the Bridge, 1991]) – putting him at the intersection of multiple gazes in which past and present are overlayed. First, there is Carax’s own gaze, identified as such at the beginning, flung at the hero of what was his youth; then, from the layers of cinematic history, Edith Scob, the actress once reduced to be pure gaze in Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes without a Face, released in 1960, the year of Carax’s birth), plays Céline, the watchful driver who unflinchingly brings Monsieur Oscar, the enigmatic character/performer played by Lavant, from one assignment to the next; and each staged encounter (9 in total) in which Oscar embodies a different persona (a captain of industry, a beggar woman, a kung fu artist, a killer and his victim, a dying man etc.) defines a bubble with its own temporality, encapsulating a series of circular gazes, that ultimately function as vectors for the spectator.
A former circus performer, Lavant enjoys a particularly flexible body, which had endeared him with directors interested in body language: apart from Lavant’s work, his most noted performance is that of sergeant Galoup in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999) that concludes on a spectacular disco scene. “His body is sculpted like those of the athletes chronophotographed by Marey. And when I film this body on the move, I feel the same pleasure I imagine Muybridge felt watching his galloping horse,” says Carax. (20) In Holy Motors, Lavant, who was 23 at the time of Boy Meets Girl, is the mirror image of the filmmaker’s own youth, turned into a spectacle and an object of (cinematic) desire – so cinephilic references are part of the game: we are the sum of the films we have beloved. In addition to the engaging cross-gender masquerade as the beggar woman, the salient moments that best display Lavant’s artistry are his turn as a kung fu artist in which his joy at pushing his body to the limits is palpable; his reappearance as the disturbing monster “Monsieur Merde” haunting the sewers and getting the girl (a role he has already enacted in a short segment directed by Carax for the omnibus film Tokyo! in 2008); a killer and his victim, reiterating the doppelganger theme of expressionist cinema, but also a story told by Godard (the man who kills his double only to realise that he has killed his real self, and his double will continue to roam the earth); and two lovers falling to their death from the rooftop of the bankrupt department store La Samaritaine, a famous Parisian landmark (as a child, Carax probably saw the store’s ubiquitous ads that were played in movie theatres before the feature, one of them involving King Kong carrying his ladylove on the same rooftop).
AFM: Eden and After
With more than 400 screenings, and a growing number of film companies – from Asian majors to US indies specialising in horror films – the AFM is a good place to test the water, check the wheat from the chaff, and try to outline where “young cinema” may be headed.
The two films I have seen by Seattle-based director Megan Griffiths reflect on the toll exacted by the passing of time on young women whose sexuality is their only currency. In The Off Hours (2011), Amy Seimetz’s character was a promiscuous waitress who, in addition to her messy sex life, was managing a household of immature male siblings and roommates, her relationships with her co-workers in an all-night diner, already damaged by life, and her own romantic fantasies with passing (and married) truckers. She was stalled, and smart enough to realise it wasn’t going to get better. Often making the wrong decisions, she was, however, always in charge. Agency will be more difficult to reach for Eden, the eponymous heroine of Griffiths’s third film (presented by Cinema Management Group). Eden is not even her real name, it was one word on the sign advertising her Korean immigrant parents grocery store in New Mexico, and it’s maliciously imposed upon her as a nom de guerre by the head of the prostitution ring (Beau Bridges) that has captured her. The opening sequence reveals teenage Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung) bound and gagged in the truck of a car, gasping for air. It will take her the rest of the film to be able to breath again – in a lonely phone booth amidst a desert landscape (the story takes place in the ‘90s, before the omnipresence of cell phones) where a faint voice returning from the past becomes the fragile Ariadne’s thread you can cling to.
Hyun Jae was a good girl, an A student, who was helping her mother with the cash register and wearing braces to redress imperfect teeth. It’s an erotic cliché that Asian women look younger than they are, and the braces suggested than she was even younger. The thug posing as a fire-fighter who kidnapped Hyun Jae may have fallen into the trap of a cultural misunderstanding: possibly, struggling Korean-American immigrants put braces on their children later than home-grown American families. This tell-tale sign is, however, the first thing that her abductors get rid of – under the supervision of the brothel’s resident nurse (the wonderful First Nation Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal). The girl has to be young, like a freshly plucked flower, but without the endearing signs of childhood that may remind the john of his own daughter. So the braces have to go. And, after the horror of the initial shock, Eden starts to think, and realises that, for the sex-trafficking operation, she is close to her expiration date. “Does anybody know you are that old?” asks one the inmates she has befriended. Later, to manipulate the brothel’s supervisor, Vaughan (Matt O’Leary), into believing that she’d be more useful to him as an assistant/accountant than as a whore, she simply tells him “I’m 19, I’m damaged goods.”
Griffiths was hired as a director by the company that had bought the rights to former trafficking victim Chong King’s autobiographical story, but she elegantly managed to impose her own priorities – working on human relationships from the inside out rather than on the prurient aspects of the plot. Her mise en scène matches the insightful performance of Jamie Chung (who, until then, was mostly known for her roles as action babe): both women suggest invisible transformations. Griffiths keep sex and violence off-screen, and Chung projects a gradual reconstruction of the self, from victimisation to the cunningness of survivors to the possibility to reconnect to the outside world and extend a helping hand to somebody weaker. Imbued with genuine feminist insights, Eden is as gently ironical as its title, and evokes, beyond the tale of endurance, a melancholy sense of loss.
Loss is a theme that appears in the prolific work of Hong Kong-born, US-based director Quentin Lee (21) under layers of cool posturing and queer edginess, and so his attempt to confront it is a more direct way in White Frog (presented by Fortissimo) is sometimes a bit muddled – but nonetheless precious. The film’s main problem is the difficulty that Lee seems to have in positing himself and his audience. Is it a tale of teenagers told by an ex-teenager for teenagers or a complex peeling away of the illusions that middle-class Chinese Americans have of being “the model minority”? On the one hand, you have teen icons in the main parts – Booboo Stewart as a lost teenager, Harry Shum Jr. as his older brother, Tyler Posey, Kelly Hu, Talulah Riley; on the other hand, in the parts of the parents, a solid performance by Broadway and television actor BD Wong, and, topping it all, the charismatic presence of Joan Chen, who always manages to transcend whatever lines are written for her, as a high-strung mother fighting the realization that her beloved son was gay.
Chaz Young was a perfect son, an A-student, a caring mentor for his younger brother Nick who idolised him. When he dies in a stupid accident, the family is devastated, and Nick embarks on a journey of discovery in which his own identity is at stake. While the plot is sometimes a bit demonstrative, Lee reaches levels of poignancy in the description of the plight of a model young man trapped in the golden cage of family expectations. In a letter left behind, he compares himself to a frog raised inside coconut milk in a sealed bamboo shaft, as a Vietnamese delicacy; the frog grows white, blind, with an exquisite tender flesh – an unhappy, aesthetic achievement, a fantasy of orientalist perfection and cruelty, like bound feet.
The toll exacted by family pressure for excellence is also alluded to in Chang Jung-Chi’s first feature, Ni guang fei siang (Touch of the Light, presented by Fortissimo and produced by Jet Tone, Wong Kar-wai’s company, it was Taiwan’s Oscar entry). As a flashback informs us, Huang Yu-hsiang was born blind in a modest family in rural Taiwan, but quickly developed precocious talents as a pianist, to the point that he ran for several competitions at a very young age. Once, after having won a prize, he heard other children complain that the jury favoured him because he was blind. Yu-hsiang swore never to compete again. When the film starts, he is a young man entering Taipei University – the real Huang Yu-hsiang plays his own part, retracing the steps that took him from voluntary obscurity to accepting being a musical prodigy. Not surprisingly, he excels in music class, but he also wants to be a regular guy and forms a rock’n’roll band with his roommates – which sometimes conflict with classical music opportunities.
Yu-Hsiang tries to be as independent as possible, but traffic in Taipei can be daunting, and, trying to cross a busy intersection, he gets help from a young woman, Hsiao Jieh (Chang Yung-Yung AKA Sandrine Pinna), whose voice he recognises from having ordered a drink before in the soda shop where she works. The pair develops a sweet friendship, and Jieh gets the courage to resume her ambition as a dancer. The film ends ambiguously on two competitions. We know that Huang is a music prodigy, and, even if he does not win in the film, he is now a star in real life; Jieh, on the other hand, may get crushed by the importance granted in Chinese culture of winning competitions and garnering prizes. The film hits the right notes in the moments when Huang generously collaborates with the director to offer minute instances of what it means to be young and blind in contemporary Taiwan, negotiating urban spaces, electronic appliances, the maze of campus living and youth culture. Yu-Hsiang’s dream would be able to enter a café by himself, select a table by the window, and read in the sun while sipping his drink. He almost gets there – a small achievement more meaningful to him than all the competitions, past or future, and which he savours in peace.
The third feature by 28 year-old Hong Kong director Heiward Mak, Diva (presented by Emperor Motion Pictures) started with an interesting premise: J Yim, an older pop star (read: in her thirties), played by real life mega Canto-pop star Joey Yung (born 1980), realises the vacuity of her life when confronted with the irresistible ascent of a little girl who has nothing but a great voice and the drive to become a pop star. Mak’s first two films, Lit yat dong hung (High Noon, 2008)and Chin do (Ex, 2010) demonstrated a knack for expressing the lifestyle and foibles of her generation; she also co-wrote a couple of screenplays with and for Pang Ho-cheung – in brief, she is the new it girl of a Hong Kong film industry in need of new talents, new voices, new directions.
Diva starts indeed with gusto, thanks to an engaging performance by the great character actor Chapman To (mostly known in the West for his work with Pang Ho-cheung, as well as his part in Andrew Lau’s and Alan Mak’s Mou gaan dou [Infernal Affairs, 2002])as Man Kin-Sun, J Yim’s unscrupulous, cunning and complex manager, a shark in the treacherous waters of Canto-pop, ready to everything to keep his stars under his thumb and insure them a Number One at the box-office. Back-stabbing, dirty deals, double talk, we are ready for an in-depth probe of the industry – except that Joey Yung, who plays J Yim as a narrative version of herself, is represented since 1998 by Emperor Entertainment Group (EEG) of which the production company of the film is a subsidiary. When Red (Mag Lam), who sings in dingy nightclubs (under the supervision of a manager elegantly played by Kara Hui – the action star of the ‘80s who got a second career thanks to Ho Yuhang’s Sham moh [At the End of Day Break] in 2009 and more recently appeared in Peter Chan’s Wuxia [Dragon, 2011]) arrives in Man’s office, ready to give everything she’s got to reach the top, things could have sizzled. Yet, they don’t; Diva is not All About Eve, and the story quickly meanders into how hard it is to find true love when you are rich and famous. J Yim tries and fails, Red almost loses her working-class boyfriend Rocky but then he has a change of heart. The two women finally meet at the end, and conclude in a line that seems lifted from The Goddess (John Cromwell, 1958), that they have to continue singing, because this is the only thing they know how to do.
Interestingly, it’s the biggest box office success in the history of China that offers the most alluring depictions of a relationship between two women, intertwined with a dream of eternal youth. Entrusted to the expert direction of Mongolian director Wuershan, Hua pi er (Painted Skin: The Resurrection) is part of a franchise bought by Taiwanese critic/director/producer Chen Kuo Fu for the Huayi Brothers, one of mainland China’s largest studios (which he had joined in the early 2000s). The earlier instalment, Hua pi (Painted Skin, 2008), made by Hong Kong director Gordon Chan, bears very little resemblance to Wuershan’s film. The theme of the painted skin (as the false human skin the a demon can wear to pass as a human) has haunted Chinese culture since Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (published circa 1679-1707), and it has spawned countless cinematic adaptations and TV series (King Hu, among others, completed one in 1993). A painter by training, Wuershan who signs here his third (and most expensive) film, mixes genre tropes with insights into the female psyche to produce a visually sumptuous, shamelessly romantic take on an ancient obsession: can humans and demons fall in love with each other?
Five hundred years ago, the fox spirit Xiaowei (Zhou Xun, one of China’s most beautiful and interesting actresses, revealed in 2000 with her double part in Lou Ye’s Suzhou He [Suzhou River]) was imprisoned under a frozen lake as punishment for having saved a man. Bird spirit Qu’er (Mini Yang) delivers her with her beak, and the two attractive women embark on a fatal trip in which they must devour men’s heart to survive. Attacked by bandits on the road, Xiaowei is saved by a masked warrior, who turns out to be a woman hiding in men’s clothes: disfigured by a bear, Princess Jing (Vicky Zhao) dares not confront her love for the young general Huo Xin (Chen Kun), while being betrothed to a barbarian prince she has never met. Xiaowei attaches herself to the service of the Princess; the two women become tantalisingly close, and the film’s most endearing moments are made of these small gestures, when they dream of being one. Playing against possible censorship issues, Wuershan conveys the sensuousness of their friendship while sublimating them toward the fantastic. If these women are so fascinated with each other, it’s because each has something the other doesn’t have. Xiaowei wants a human heart to escape her destiny as a murderous demon, and maybe love a man – while Jing wants an unblemished skin and eternal beauty to be able to seduce Huo Xin.
Wuershan cunningly balances the more romantic section of the film through incursion into pure horror (the camp of the Barbarians – the least successful part of the film) and delightful comedy pairing Qu’er, the lovely bird-demon, and a bundling self-styled “demon hunter” (William Feng) who falls in love with her. Yet, like Jing’s heart, both symbol of life and object of desire, the core of the film is in the gaze the two female protagonists exchange. Women loving each other, women wanting to be each other, women competing with each other, women sleeping with the same man, women desiring what the other one has, women eventually bound by a mutual understanding…
Since his first feature, Wo kou de zong ji (Sword Identity, 2011), Xu Haofeng has strived to produce a different kind of wuxia pian (martial arts film), a genre that, from 1949 until the early 2000s, couldn’t be made in the PRC. Without access to the landscapes of the mainland, in studio decors, a bevy of Hong Kong filmmakers turned in a formidable output of films that defined the genre for a long time, and in which the mise en scène revolved around the action choreography, assisted by the use of wires, trampolines and camera tricks. Martial arts directors became masters in re-choreographing movements specifically for the camera, which, in particular including lengthening the sequence of movements, for greater legibility (while a real combat sometimes takes no more than a few seconds, and depends on minuscule, almost invisible moves). When the bamboo curtain lifted, some Hong Kong filmmakers were allowed to shoot wuxia pian on the mainland, and somewhat muted the spectacular aspect of the fighting to allow for a true discovery of the landscapes (Ann Hui’s Shu jian en chou lu [The Romance of Book and Sword, 1987]) or to express existential concerns (Wong Kar-wai’s Dung che sai duk [Ashes of Time, 1994]). When mainland directors started to tackle the genre, though, it was more in the direction of sumptuous historical fantasies designed for international audiences (such as Zhang Yimou’s Ying xiong [Hero, 2002]) than in the redefinition of the essence of wuxia.
Xu Haofeng’s uncle had been a martial arts master; he was also suspected of being a Kuomintang sympathiser, on account of which, he spent more than 20 years in prison. When he was released, his young nephew, undaunted by his systematic refusal, kept asking to be initiated, and he eventually agreed to teach him a few moves. This made Xu a “Master” himself – a dangerous position in which he could be challenged to a duel at any moment. The Beijing Film Academy provided a safe exit. After graduating in 1997, though, he resumed his martial arts training, but used it to write well respected novels, that eventually attracted Wong Kar-wai’s attention when he was preparing Yidai zongshi (The Grandmaster) – finally released now but five years in the making: Xu is one of the three screenwriters of the film (with Wong himself and Zou Jinzhi) as well as an (uncredited) martial arts consultant.
Xu’s second film, Jian shi liu bai yuan (Judge Archer;presented by the Hong Kong company Golden Network) has an unconventional way – sharp as a knife, dry as black humour – to follow the physical, emotional and spiritual transformations of a troubled young man, Shuangxi (Song Yang), who inadvertently becomes a “judge archer”. Ordered by fighting monks to adopt the first words thrown at him as a name, he hears the disciples of a real “judge archer” calling him. Hence it becomes his name – and his destiny. The story takes place during the Republican era, when China was on the threshold of modernity – long flowing robes coexist with western suits and hats, women are struggling for their independence (this is the time of the xin nü xing, the new woman), and martial arts school are faced with a budding market economy – they have to compete, not only on a spiritual level, but for their very own economic survival. The person entrusted with mediating conflicts between martial arts school was called Judge Archer.
That Shuangxi, no matter how much of a fighting virtuoso he has become, may be unprepared for the job is shown through his fondness for alcohol and women. In an exhilarating sequence, he fights, then has sex with, then fights again, then finally accepts an avenging mission from a half-Russian half-Chinese woman, Erdong (Yenny Martin), with a taste for masculine buttoned-up suits. Things are not what they seem – but then, neither is Judge Archer, who spends a good part of the film masquerading as a fruit seller, while ruminating on the treachery of beautiful women and old-guard fighters, and the elusive character of love. If the plot is somewhat complex, the fighting sequences are crystal clear, like short pieces by Webern – instead of the operatic aspect of the traditional wuxia pian (it should also be noted that, in Judge Archer, martial arts are treated as visual music; the exquisitely elaborate soundtrack includes re-recording and layering of the sound made by fighting itself, without the crutches of incidental music). Xu made a point of accurately reproducing the martial styles that were practiced between 1912 and 1928, “the last period in which ancient Chinese weapons were used in combat.” (22) The opposition between the spear, that represents power, and Judge Archer’s arrows, that represent personal development, is at the philosophical and narrative core of the conflict. An intellectual director, Xu takes a stance on the relationship between tradition and modernity: it is by going back to the sources, in an almost literal way, that originality may (re)emerge. Young wines lovingly prepared through old recipes make the best drinks.
1-8 November 2012
Festival website: http://www.afi.com/afifest/
American Film Market
31 October-7 November 2012
Market website: http://www.americanfilmmarket.com/
- Peter Debruge, Variety, May 22, 2012
- “AFI FEST 2012 presented by Audi ANNOUNCES AUDIENCE AND JURY AWARD-WINNING FILMS”. Press release, 8 November, 2012.
- Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus” in Camera Obscura No 1, Fall 1976. Translated by Jean Andrews and Bertrand Augst, p. 111. Originally published as “Le Dispositif”, Communications No 23, 1975, p. 121.
- Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, New York: New York Review of Books, 1964. Translated by Ruth L.C. Simms. First published in 1940 by Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
- Disclaimer: Together with Dana Harris (Indiewire), David Hudson (Fandor) and Gregg Kilday (The Hollywood Reporter), I was on the New Auteurs jury. In addition to Eat Sleep Die the nine films in competition were: Michel Franco’s Después de Lucía (After Lucia), Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral, Maja Miloš’s Klip (Clip), Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Aquí y Allá (Here and There), Tobias Lindholm’s Kapringen (A Highjacking), Sergei Loznitsa’s V Tumane (In the Fog), Noni Geffen’s Not in Tel Aviv and Antonio Campos’ Simon Killer. The decision to award the Grand Prize to Eat Sleep Die was unanimous.
- Disclaimer: Mike Ott, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, where I teach. Atsuko Okatsuka is currently a student at CalArts as well. I had nothing to do with the awards received by both films. I have a special thanks in Pearblossom Hwy, but this has to do with my support for Mike Ott’s work as a filmmaker in general, rather than for anything specific related to the making of the film.
- Alexander Pushkin, “The Queen of Spades”, translated by Natalie Duddington in The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories, Dent, London, 1961, p. 127.
- See http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/festival-reports/alice-in-wonder-mall-and-wonder-beach-the-afifest-and-american-film-market/, retrieved December 23, 2012.
- Adams has appeared, among others, in films by Paul Schrader (Light Sleeper, 1992), Alan Rudolph (Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, 1994), Robert Altman (Kansas City, 1996), Lawrence Kasdan (Mumford, 1999), Maggie Greenwald (Songcatcher, 2000), Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys, 2000), Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Anniversary Party, 2001), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004), Wayne Wang (Last Holiday, 2006), Todd Field (Little Children, 2006), Aaron J. Wiederspahn (The Sensation of Sight, 2006), Neil Jordan (The Brave One, 2007), Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 2008) and Gus van Sant (Restless, 2011).
- At 17, Tessa Ía González Norvind appears here in her first film. She is the daughter of the Mexican telenovela actress Nailea Norvind, and the granddaughter of the Norwegian/Russian multi-talented personality and artist Eva Norvind (1944-2006). After winning a beauty contest in Cannes at 16, performing at the Follies Bergères in Paris and dancing the Cancan in New York, Eva Norvind lived in Mexico between 1964 and 1968 and acted in eight films. She studied film, human sexuality and forensic psychology at NYU, was a writer, a professional photographer and a professional dominatrix, while being an advocate/consultant on issues of sexuality, representation and health. She became the subject of a documentary by Monika Treut, Didn’t Do It for Love (1997). Nailea Norvind completed the documentary her mother was working on at the moment of her death, the award-winning Born Without (Nacido Sin, 2007).
- Borderline Films is a New York-based production company founded by three directors who produce each other’s films (as well as those of other young directors): Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene, 2011) and Josh Mond.
- Mati Diop directed three shorts, Atlantiques (2009), Snow Canon (2011) and Big in Vietnam (2011); she is currently (February 2013) preparing a feature-length film.
- Seimetz acted in Swanberg’s Alexander the Last (2009), Silver Bullets (2011), which she also co-produced, and Autoerotic (2011).
- Guillaume Apollinaire, “La Chanson du Mal Aimé.” (written in 1903). In Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools, Gallimard, Paris: Gallimard, 1920, p. 17. I have chosen here a translation by Anne Hyde Greet: “One misty dusk in London/ A hoodlum resembling/ My love came to meet me/ And the look he flung me/ Made me lower my eyes in shame.” See http://www.textetc.com/workshop/wt-apollinaire-1.html
- Olivier Assayas, “Under circumstances eternal / From the depth of a shipwreck”. Translated by Rachel Zerner in Olivier Assayas, A Post-May Adolescence – Letter to Guy Debord, SYNEMA Publikationen, Vienna, 2012, p. 76.
- “Tarkovsky: Seeing is Believing. Director Olivier Assayas, Tarkovsky, Breughel and ‘Mirror’.” He talks with Bérénice Reynaud. Sight & Sound, January 1997, p. 24.
- Rashmi Doraiswami, ”The Mirror in the Other: Russian Cinema’s Look at the East” in Aruna Vasudev and Philip Cheah (eds), When Strangers Meet, Asia-Europe Foundation, Singapore, 2012, p. 21.
- Leos Carax, program notes.
- Lee has directed 13 independent films since 1992, including Flow (1996), Shopping for Fangs (1997), Drift (2001), Ethan Mao (2004), the documentary 0506HK (2007) and The People I Slept With (2009).
- Xu Haofeng, program notes.