Perhaps the most difficult thing about having a good reputation is the need to maintain it. There’s scarcely a festival more exalted for the quality of its programming than the Viennale, an intimate utopia of plush, multiplex-shunning screening venues all within easy walking distance of one another, the perfect setting for two whole unhurried weeks of cinephilic contemplation. Yet for all its seemingly effortless, still hard-fought cachet, the festival remains beholden to the same balancing act many of its peers are criticised for, the need to juggle audience-attracting local premieres, festival circuit discoveries, emerging filmmakers receiving their first significant anointment and film historical obscurities. And once you’ve demonstrated your mastery of the high wire, the pressure to perform year in, year out is always going to get to you at some point. Even a slip will be duly registered, let alone a fall.

Although this year’s edition was certainly no fall, the festival’s previous fleetness of foot was somehow missing: an undeniable sense of bloat here, a perplexing curatorial decision there. Maybe the hardest standards to be held up to are your own. While the films of Federico Veiroj are certainly not without charm, you have to wonder whether his modest oeuvre really warrants the accolade of a special focus just three features in. There’s nothing wrong with drawing lines between the disparate, but it’s doubtful that placing a pleasant, faintly insipid American indie like Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brother Taught Me alongside a program of shorts by Peter Nestler and Jean-Marie Straub benefits either. And although showcasing the work of Anne Charlotte Robertson, Jean-Claude Rousseau and Mark Rappaport is a more than worthy endeavour, linking them under the surname-referencing banner of “The 3Rs” smacks more of the arbitrary than the considered.

Viennale film festival review

Pietro Marcello’s Bella e Perduta (Lost and Beautiful)

This year’s retrospective appeared to point in a similar direction, with “Animals – A Small Zoology of Cinema” seeming at first glance like an atypically cautious choice: crowd-pleasing, easy to curate, but neither particularly innovative nor challenging. Yet this decision made increasing sense in light of all the animals on parade outside the retrospective too: the infinite flocks of sodden goats in To the Wolf (Sto lyko, Aran Hughes & Christina Koutsospyrou, 2013) from the “Greece – Once More with Feeling” program, the Chris Marker-invoking cats Jem Cohen can’t help filming in Counting, the melancholy buffalo narrator from Pietro Marcello’s Bella e Perduta (Lost and Beautiful), to name just a few. If anything, the true virtue of the retrospective was to hone the gaze for all the many functions animals are made to perform in film: embodiments of primal fears, gatekeepers to the natural world, placeholders for human connections, representative stations in endlessly recurring processes, a convenient shorthand for particular characteristics. In turn, this sheer multiplicity of roles serves as an ideal analogy for what the Viennale itself attempts to map out: the restlessly protean nature of cinema itself. And perhaps this was the key to making peace with the festival’s occasional slips: for what would any bestiary be without the occasional dog?

Viennale film festival review

Phase IV by Saul Bass

It was down to the retrospective itself to examine where the walls of the bestiary might lie, with two films providing perfectly contradictory hypotheses to this end. Phase IV (1974), the only film directed by Hitchcock title-designer par excellence Saul Bass, is one of those mesmerising failures only the ‘70s could throw up. While it’s hard to ascertain what exactly it is that finally scuppers this fantastically bizarre science fiction/horror oddity – you can take your pick from the overblown acting, the plot holes or the perpetually declamatory script – the conspicuous lack of scares is certainly a viable candidate. The problem here is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of anthropomorphism or rather its limits. Bass takes nearly 10 minutes to introduce the film’s primary antagonist, a wonderfully rendered opening sequence that shows ants wandering through constructed passages, ants en masse, ants taking down a big spider, peppered with detail shots of their heads, the structure of their eyes, their glistening abdomens. Yet for all the voiceover’s efforts to convince us that these ants have started talking to one another, that all the species have united against the common foe, that global domination is nigh, little sticks. If you took away the ominous music and portentous statements, the sequence would function just as well as a documentary, an exploration of ants at midnight crying out for a David Attenborough commentary.

Once the plot kicks into gear, which involves two scientists setting up an impractical metallic research station in the middle of the desert to study the ants’ new hive mind, Bass even seems aware of how ill-suited ants are for conveying this sort of malignant intelligence, with most of the tension arising from the traces of their actions rather than the actions themselves. Whether the monolithic anthills that reflect the sun on to the research station, the arm that swells up from the venom of an ant bite, or the computer printouts depicting the ants’ communications, nearly everything is the product of some unseen maniacal force the ants remain stubbornly incapable of evoking. As such, it’s hard to feel fear at endless masses of arbitrary vectors who might just as easily be squirrels or snakes, two species on to which it would be far easier to project intentionality. For a genre film at least, it would appear that invoking the true face of evil requires precisely that: a face recognisable as such.

Viennale film festival review

Roberto Rossellini’s India: Matri Bhumi

If Phase IV marks out the limits of animal identification, Roberto Rossellini’s India: Matri Bhumi (1959) shrugs off any limits at all, showing glorious disdain for the standard boundaries separating human and animal, documentary and fiction, and observer and the observed. The film’s opening is something of a misnomer, as an avuncular Italian voiceover enthusiastically expounds upon the euphoria one feels upon arrival in Bombay, his comments at best an expression of slightly patronising idealism, at worst gushing exoticism. But if the tone is obvious, the images are most certainly not, a perpetual back and forth of fleeting pans edited together with consummate fluidity that comb the streets for the fragments of life they hold. Once the camera ditches the commentary to conduct a one-minute pan through the brittle-looking trees of the Karapur jungle to survey the savannah beyond, it’s clear that this opening mode is to be just one of many, an impression duly confirmed when the “I” of the voiceover suddenly attaches itself to a local elephant keeper. The same Italian voice now details the rigours of his job and his attempt to court his future wife, the account itself interrupted both by staged scenes conducted in the local language or ones showing two timid elephants carrying out a courtship of their own.

Such shifts in perspective and mode continue to abound, as the film flits back and forth across the subcontinent at will, alighting variously on a construction worker in ideological awe of the dam he helped construct, a monkey helpless to throw off domestication’s chains and an 80 year-old forest-dweller just as concerned for the well-being of a tigress as he is for his fellow man. The mood is also fittingly mercurial, veering between bucolic serenity, wooden dramatics and frenzied metaphysics. It is as if the only way for Rossellini to grasp the sheer vastness of India was to break it down into countless disparate fragments before throwing them back together, whereupon a paradoxical unity does indeed emerge. As the final voiceover, now in French, asserts, what else is India or even reality itself but a daily symbiosis of otherwise discrete things? Cows, trees, crowds in movement, honours, machines, collective leisure, birds that dive down into the streets: an entire world, big enough for everything, another exhilarating expression of Rossellini’s untiring humanism.

Viennale film festival review

Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel’s Rabo de Peixe (Fish Tail)

If Rossellini had ever made it to the Azores, he might have come up with something akin to Rabo de Peixe (Fish Tail), even if Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel’s enchanting documentary is not as inclined to fragmentation or experimentation. Yet the starting point is a similar one, the idea of turning up at a new place and channelling the fascination you feel for it into a film. Pinto and Leonel first arrived at the small fishing village of Rabo de Peixe in 1999 to see in the New Year and befriended a fisherman named Pedro, who was as curious about them as they were about him. The film they ended up making is rooted in this mutual curiosity and affection, a documentary strategy as organic and transparent as the friendship it sprung from, with the two filmmakers even willing to pass on the camera to their nominal subjects to this end. Over the course of a year, Pinto and Leonel both observe and enter into the everyday routines of Pedro and his family and colleagues, augmenting them with comments, references, and anecdotes from their own lives. They thus join Pedro at sea to fish for blue jack mackerel, swordfish, or spider crab, become acquainted with the intricacies of fishing by hand, and witness the village’s various rituals and processions, all while reflecting upon the nature of work, which moments should be filmed and which kept private and the archipelago’s historical and cinematic heritage.

As Pedro says himself when they first discuss the film, the sea is indeed a rich source of images: lithe bodies running over black sand to plunge into the water, the sun’s rays bisecting the clouds to meet the ocean, the pinks, yellows and oranges of the sky that complement the blue and grey of the sea. Given the very name of the village means fish tail, animals are equally plentiful here, so many of them in fact that it’s impossible to isolate them from the setting. In this sense, they are just one more raw material to be processed, whether the fish packed for consumption in Asia, the bull garlanded with flowers before being sacrificed and eaten communally, the marine forebears of the humanoid sea monsters Pinto tries to distracts himself with while Leonel is out diving. And just like the treatise on fishing the film gradually pieces together, the important thing is not the processing per se, but rather how you go about doing it.

Viennale film festival review

Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog

Processing of a different kind takes centre stage in Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, although it’s again an animal that provides the necessary raw material. The animal here is the experimental music legend’s former pet, a rat terrier named Lollabelle whose death is the fulcrum around which this deliberately meandering essay pivots. But as is so often the case, this beloved creature is at once what it is and something else entirely, as Anderson’s efforts to come to terms with this particular loss serve as a conduit for numerous others, whether explicit or merely inferred, with animals (what else?) popping up again and again as peculiar palliatives. On her deathbed, Anderson’s mother asks why there are so many animals on the ceiling, while two llamas make an unexpected appearance at the party artist Gordon Matta-Clark holds to celebrate his own untimely demise. The hawks circling above the mountains of northern California encapsulate the innocence lost when death came from the sky on September 11th, just as Anderson’s fantastic opening salvo about having Lolabelle sewn into her body to experience the joy of giving birth alludes to a child never had. But it goes without saying that the most keenly felt elephant in the room is Lou Reed, to whom the film is dedicated and who pops in one single poignant image, with it never being entirely clear what is being applied to the dog and what is being applied to him.

Anyone who’s heard Anderson on record will already be well acquainted with the expertly modulated cadences of her voice and her ability to make unlikely, entirely organic seeming connections. Both of these talents are very much in evidence in Heart of a Dog, with her sinuous line of argumentation obtaining fresh kinks again and again from how she pronounces or repeats certain words or seamlessly shifts from one register to another. But unfortunately the film’s pleasures are largely limited to the vocal and textual, as Anderson’s images never feel much more than a mildly pretty accompaniment to the main attraction of her voice. The problem is also one of literalism, as nearly everything on the voiceover is parroted in the images to an almost ridiculous degree, the contrast between the former’s unbridled invention and the latter’s timid deference being as glaring as they come. And on the few occasions the images do strike out on their own, the results are less than impressive: some old school superimpositions here, a bit of colorisation there, interminable water droplets on glass. If you really want the animals to carry you away, you’re better off closing your eyes.

Viennale film festival review

Magazine Mouth by Anne Charlotte Robertson

It’s strange to think that while Laurie Anderson was looking out of her apartment to see trucks carry debris from Ground Zero along the West Side Highway, another filmmaker in Boston was already putting together one of the linkages Anderson would make some 14 years later, namely that between the passing of a cherished pet and the senseless deaths at the World Trade Center. But there’s no need to shut your eyes at Anne Charlotte Robertson’s six-minute My Cat, My Garden, 9/11 (2001) or indeed any of her work, as Robertson shows the same oddly instinctive talent for creating images as she does for playing around with sound, to say nothing of her capacity for splicing together disparate things. Split into nominal chapters by a recurring yellow flashing screen, Robertson’s short simply gently connects three things that all happened to occur in the same timeframe: the death of her adored cat, who was rescued as a kitten by an Arab and named after the Arabic word for happiness; the cucumbers and basil that grew in her garden before frost blasted before it; the September 11th attacks and Osama Bin Laden’s talk of martyrs and sinners. Each are captured on grainy Super-8 stock and each jerk of the camera feels totally controlled. All this would be reminiscent of a home movie if it weren’t for the precision of the editing and the unfussy beauty of each seemingly tossed off moment: a patterned glass on a dark windowsill, a television set showing people fleeing a huge cloud of dust, the light streaming through a window that shrinks and darkens into one tiny sun. Robertson never forces her images or her ideas to cohere, but they do nonetheless, into one beautifully simple sentiment: death is awful.

To try and compress everything Robertson’s work contains into a few lines is a pretty thankless task, particularly in view of her capacity to mould the world around her into what feels like a whole realm of experience and sensation. It’s unsurprising then that her key work is itself unconcerned with easy graspability or convenience of format, the 37-hour Five Year Diary, a set of 84 chronically produced reels that span the period from 1981 to 1997, of which three were shown at the Viennale together with a program of shorts. The unifying element of this excellently curated selection of Robertson’s oeuvre is Robertson herself, for whom film was the best way of shouldering her lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder and the self-image issues that went along with it. But even if the subject of each of her works is usually the same, her ways of approaching it differ wildly. Magazine Mouth (1983) is a cheerful animation set to a marching band theme, whereby countless open-mouthed Robertson faces seem to consume (and occasionally spew back out) all placed before them, whether fishes, jumbo jets, or bottles of spirits. In Apologies (1986), Robertson films herself apologising for every possible thing she can think of over 17 wonderfully wry minutes, with her own perceived slapdash approach to filmmaking, her vices and the very tone of the apologies themselves all receiving generous levels of reproach, her obsessive need for self-criticism made disarming and thus comprehensible by its upfront presentation. Reels 22 (A Story Affair (And) Going Crazy) and 26 (First Semester Grad School) also blur the boundary between her condition and its representation: the former a brittle, anxious account of the impact of a short dalliance, the latter a set of much calmer impressions accompanied by her and her professors in voiceover discussing the content of the earlier reel. But perhaps the best entry point to Robertson’s unique talent is Going to Work (1981), which duly opened the short program: a snowy trip across a city broken down into tiny impressionistic shards, all pushing ever onward to abstraction. A camera rushing past snow-laden branches overhead, Christmas lights by day on a bare tree against the sky, pigeons and tyre-tracks in the snow, different manifestations of the same restless inquisitiveness for the image.

Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival
22 October – 5 November 2015
Festival website: http://www.viennale.at