La Roche-Sur-Yon feels like an unlikely place for any festival at all, let alone the pleasingly eclectic one it’s been granted. This small town was given its grid-like layout by Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century, a set of identically straight streets that might seem confusing if they didn’t all lead to the central square that carries his name, where a statue of Bonaparte astride his horse still stands as a tribute to the conservative tradition of this particular corner of France. Yet the fact that a wonderfully trashy transvestite bar called “Chez Papy’s” also lies just a stone’s throw away is not the only indication that La Roche is open to far more than you think, with the enthusiastic festival volunteers, well-attended screenings and mass of revellers partying at Papy’s into the night equally suggesting that this staid seeming town is not so out of sync with its film festival as it seems. This happy synthesis is down in no small part to the programming strategy followed by festival director Paolo Moretti and his deputy Emilie Bujès, a concise mix of French premieres, unheralded gems from the festival circuit and obscure film (historical) discoveries. Perhaps this year’s biggest coup was the retrospective dedicated to French actor Vincent Lindon, a savvy decision fortuitously crowned by his Best Actor award at Cannes for Stéphane Brizé’s La loi du marché (The Measure of a Man), which showed alongside his other notable performances for Alain Cavalier, Claire Denis and Benoît Jacquot. Lindon’s rising profile was affirmed by the sense of mild hysteria that accompanied his few days in town, a blur of sold-out screenings, packed personal appearances and jocular anecdotes.
Two slender competitions form the centrepiece of the La Roche program, each presided over by a three-person international jury. The International Competition pitted recondite recent Locarno highlights Bella e perduta (Lost and Beautiful, Pietro Marcello) and Cosmos (Andrzej Żuławski) against the more accessible likes of Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America and Dagur Kári’s Fúsi’s Virgin Mountain, with Marcello’s whimsical fable eventually winning out. The Nouvelles Vagues Competition showed even greater eclecticism, with shorts, documentaries and features all vying for the same award, a clear nod to Moretti’s time as a program advisor during the glory days of Venice’s Orrizonti sidebar. As befits its name, the Nouvelles Vagues selection functioned as a showcase of all the disparate things cinema is currently becoming, whether a means of shaking dust off revered classics (Vincent Macaigne’s Dom Juan et Sganarelle), a vessel for conveying youth cultures and their forms of expression (Necktie Youth by Sibs Shongwe-La Mer), or a constant tightrope walk between the “real” and the constructed (Olmo and the Seagull by Petra Costa and Lea Glob). While the sheer breadth of possible future cinemas on display here meant some were more interesting than others, maybe that’s the point, as only by navigating imperfections do you arrive at the new.
Anqi Ju’s Shi ren chu chai le (Poet on a Business Trip) stands out from the recent deluge of documentary-fiction hybrids for the sheer simplicity of its construction. Way back in 2002, the director followed real-life poet Shu on a journey through the vast expanses of Xinjiang in western China, a remote, politically troubled region that served as a loose inspiration for the 16 poems Shu wrote on the trip. Only edited together relatively recently, the film makes these 16 poems into its backbone, flashing them up on the screen at irregular intervals in various permutations: on a black screen or over the images, with or without music, recited or left silent. The sections of the journey in between are united by their lack of occurrence: views of the ravishing, ever changing landscape out of car or bus windows, the dark corridors of the various lodgings the poet finds himself in, brief, often inebriated encounters with people along the way, regular trips to brothels. For a considerable time, the film’s leisurely oscillation between overt artifice and snippets of real life casts an agreeably soporific spell, as the metaphysics of the poems are allowed to seep gently into the scenery that gave rise to them. Yet bit by bit, the unadorned construction slowly morphs from a virtue into a millstone, with such a sedate back-and-forth perhaps able to carry 70 minutes but not 103. An austere structuring principle of this kind requires total precision to be sustained, which is unfortunately not the case here, as certain poems lack the bite of others, the gaps have a tendency to the random and the later intrusion of nominal dramatic scenes disturbs the previous flow. I was frequently reminded of another recent Chinese film that also sews poetry into its DNA, namely Gan Bi’s Lu bian ye can (Kaili Blues), where a structure is established only to be cast off again at will. Freedom is something hard to put your finger on.
If anything, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Mata-me por favor (Kill Me Please) suffers from a surfeit of freedom, jumping between different genres with such gleeful abandon that more, rather than less structure would be of benefit. Rocha da Silveira’s debut feature is a high school drama, horror film and trashy musical rolled into one that juggles the different modes required to this end with considerable assurance. It’s hard to say which is the film’s true heart: protagonist Bia’s attempts to split her time between her girl clique, chasteness-seeking boyfriend and bearded loner brother, or the set of violent murders that rock the oddly empty suburb of Barra de Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro. The boundary between the two is pretty porous anyway, as girls talk of post-sex bloodflows, morbid poetry is recited that revels in rotting bodies and the entire school gossips about the murders with a mixture of revulsion and longing. Even the garish music numbers are not exempt from having other moods collapse in on them, like the constant references to the blood of Jesus that pervade the buxom platinum-blond evangelist’s ditties or the closing dance at the queen bee’s birthday party which culminates in each person sucking bodily fluids from someone else. It’s no surprise that the film’s strongest scene is the one best able to integrate the film’s divergent concerns: a literally ass-shaking dance scene in the school’s central quadrangle performed, like much of the film, frontally to camera, until the oddly sterile gyrations are interrupted by something shattering on the ground behind the five dancers, a few shrieks now replacing the music. There’s something admirably ballsy about how Rocha da Silveira flirts with her genres of choice without deigning to follow through on any of them, even if this restlessness eventually leaves her film with a random, unsatisfying ending. But it’s far better to have too many ideas than too few; once this young Brazilian director’s restraint catches up with her energy, it will be a sight to behold.
Of all the visions of cinema’s possible future on offer at La Roche, it was Sean Baker’s Tangerine that was the most fully formed, one of those rare films that is so entertaining you could easily overlook the intricacy of its construction. Tangerine is a work of incessant forward propulsion, fuelled by a strutting procession of overlapping quests and deadlines that criss-cross Los Angeles: recently released prostitute Sin-Dee’s endeavours to find her rival Dinah and subsequently her boyfriend Chester, taxi driver Razmik’s search for a cock to suck, preferably attached to a woman’s body, both of their efforts to make it to fellow prostitute Alexandra’s 7pm performance on time, Razmik’s mother-in-law’s journey through the city to catch her daughter’s husband with his pants down. This ceaseless searching is strangely reminiscent of a famous past attempt to recover a stolen bicycle, an impression only heightened by the fact that all these quests take place right in the midst of the city, the brace of iPhones to hand functioning as the modern equivalent of setting up a camera in the street. Baker is smart enough however to merely tip his hat to such realist traditions rather than remaining beholden to him, as the aggressive yellow saturation of his images and nearly wall-to-wall music are equally born of the music video, albeit shorn of its tendency to bludgeon. Yet long before all the wandering has come to an end at Donut Time and Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s ease of passage as transwomen is abruptly called into question, Tangerine has established similar credentials to its Italian forefathers: a humanistic portrait of a city so good at putting the marginalised centre stage you might even forget how seldom they’re there.
The most unexpected discoveries at La Roche were lurking outside of the competitions though, with two tiny sidebars each managing to pose even wider questions about the very nature of cinema. The first of these was a focus on CaRTe bLaNChe, a Paris-based production and distribution company aimed at supporting the next generation of Japanese filmmakers and artists. Among the three programs of shimmering abstract forms and surreal narratives, many of them animated, two modest shorts by a director still in his twenties pushed at most unusual boundaries: IR PLANET (2014) and Silent Passengers (2012) by Hirofumi Nakamoto. Both are variations on the same, deceptively simple idea: collecting wild animals (in the former case just crabs, in the latter crabs, frogs, starfish and a stick insect) and placing them in the confines of a hotel room, with a camera left in the proximity to record the results. An exercise in the unreality of the real ensues, somewhere between an animal documentary, science fiction and horror, with the presence of the animals rendering the familiar space and its objects strangely alien, just as they become transformed into foreign bodies when placed within it. Silent Passengers augments the beasts’ hoppings and scuttlings with various shots of the island they call home: the bridge crossing to get there, butterflies fluttering across the dashboard of the car, a frog being caught in a net at the side of the road. The crabs of this island are so staggeringly real you spend the first ten minutes of the film wondering if they’re not insanely convincing animatronics, immaculately crafted monsters compelled to consume the camera like in some old B-movie. IR PLANET collects its own crabs in a bucket from the marshes and surveys them in the pitch black hotel room with the help of a night vision camera, their glowing forms against the window or in the bathtub transforming them into vast intruders from another planet, a tiny army lying in wait to devour the sleeping city below.
Yet it was two brief features by an 82 year-old documentarian that suffused the festival with an unrivalled sense of grace, a major rediscovery that also happened to be the only films shown on 35mm. This mini-focus on Italian outsider Franco Piavoli was merely a taster for the full retrospective he will enjoy at Cinéma du Reel in Paris in March, which on this evidence is not to be missed. Even if he didn’t belong to more or less their generation, Piavoli would still feel like a long lost, non-narrative cousin to Victor Erice, Abbas Kiarostami and Terence Davies, another purveyor of pure cinema for whom viewing the world through the lens of a camera is the only way to truly grasp it. Piavoli’s films create chains of myriad rapturous fragments that are organised into sets of freely interlocking processes, with his immaculate grasp of editing and framing repeatedly extracting the essential, the abstract and the oneiric from what he sees around him. Perhaps the greatest testament to this ability to spin the elemental from the quotidian is the fact his raw material is the same each time round: all his films were shot in and around his home village of Pozzolengo in the province of Brescia where he still lives to this day, an entire universe of experience plucked from just a 5 kilometre radius.
The processes linked together by Il pianeta azzurro (1982) could not be more fundamental: the passing of the seasons, day moving into night and night back into day, the birth and death of the entire world. Piavoli traces these concurrent processes as if conducting a symphony partitioned into different movements, with the frame gently expanding and contracting throughout: tight detail shots of surfaces and textures broken up by occasional glimpses of the wider setting, sustained static shots that pick out movements in or across space, selectively employed pans to capture the broadest of contexts. The opening follows an expanse of wintry black ice gradually melting into running water, the focus slowly widening as the water collects into a pond and the landscape around it begins to emerge: wind rippling through grass on the side of a hill, a sodden meadow replete with yellow spring flowers, sun on the forest floor. Animals soon inundate the newly established habitat – frogs, caterpillars, hedgehogs, snails, humans – different creatures edited together so that their differences vanish, as they move around, feed and fornicate. Late summer arrives and with it work, huge machines that till the fields, their labours continuing into the night, even as others slumber and snore in stone houses. The new day brings with it falling leaves, steam rising from manure, and growing shadows against the walls, before the temperature drops, buildings stand empty, and old work tools lie abandoned, covered by a thin sheet of dew. Electric pylons fleetingly emerge from the mist until they too are gone, as the entire vista vanishes back into the fog and stream from where it first came. While Piavoli’s adherence to his processes is unwavering, it is not slavish, as unexplained scenes are still allowed to intrude, which together with the lack of musical underlining prevent all the elementalism from becoming aggressively elegiac. Why does a couple’s summer lovemaking segue into men operating an antiquated set of sluice gates and why does a woman wake in the night unable to control her sobs? Like any great documentarian, Piavoli understands that some things fit the pattern and others happily do not.
While humans are just one species in space in Il pianeta azzurro, they are given the full spotlight in Voci nel tempo (1996), which revisits the seasonal cycle of the earlier film in order to link it to the human lifespan. This time, a small Italian village forms the unchanging backdrop for these two processes to flow in and around, even as the landscape asserts itself again and again. The village’s central square, its main thoroughfare, the steps that lead up to the church and the view down on the streets below from its spire thus see the different sub-processes of life pass through them: play, exploration, the discovery of nature and religion, courtship, marriage, aging. So many of these stations involve music you could even call the film a musical of sorts: the choral tones that accompanies four boys’ first visit to a remote church, the Italian pop to which the village’s couples bop and grind, the impromptu singalong that brings a wedding to a close with the setting sun. But all music aside, the glue that ultimately sticks together all these ritualised processes is the human face. Nearly every natural detail, expansive landscape or rite of passage you see in the film is simultaneously being watched by someone within it, a catalogue of gazes – yearning, joyous, inquisitive, impassive – that equally functions as a cartography of the visage over time, mapping out how surfaces swell or slacken and valleys begin to form. Here too, Piavoli avoids total linearity, as incongruous faces luckily impinge whenever the facial flow threatens to become a deluge. And there is once again room for things that cannot be properly explained: a tree half-submerged in a swollen river, a slow zoom on to a man gobbling down watermelon at the kitchen table, an aeroplane that suddenly drags you back from timelessness and into the nineties. Strange, necessary reminders that all processes carry surplus in their wake.
La Roche-Sur-Yon International Film Festival
12-18 October 2015
Festival website: http://www.fif-85.com/en/