“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” This statement, from Billy Wilder’s Hollywood noir, Sunset Boulevard (1950), returned to me time and time again during the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival. A proclamation made with a healthy dose of ego by Gloria Swanson’s fading silent film star Norma Desmond, it nevertheless reminds us that the human face is the most expressive weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal. When mobilized to full effect – whether to rouse empathy, desire, or distress – words do, it is true, become meaningless beside it. But Norma was wrong to declare that, “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” My experience at MIFF this year revealed countless examples of evidence to the contrary. Multiple, dizzying developments in sound and effects since the silent era have not obliterated the power of faces on screen – all the more mighty when viewed at over five feet high and wide. The face remains, at least for this viewer, the chief, transformative portal into the world of a film; the primary locus for connection or alienation between audience and screen; and the most beautiful cinematic landscape of them all.
In its 66th year, and screening 356 films, MIFF encouraged its audiences to explore new worlds. Program strands such as the Sci-Fi Retrospective, the Virtual Reality stream, and the special strand of Australia’s Pioneering Women filmmakers (presented in association with the National Film and Sound Archive), offered boundless possibilities for travel. But the human face offered new worlds too – via rotoscoping animation in Tehran Taboo (Ali Soozandeh, 2017) it unveiled the sexual hypocrisy of Iranian society; it was a map of female pleasure, like the faces in Lover for a Day (Philippe Garrel, 2017); and it became an impenetrable mask that kept us at a chilling distance, like the faces of the youth in revolt in Bertrand Bonello’s electrifying and polarizing Nocturama (2016).
Faces, unsurprisingly, are vital to the achievement of Agnès Varda’s wonderful documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages, 2017), co-directed with the visual artist, JR. The spirit of the nouvelle vague persists in Varda’s ongoing commitment to spontaneity and collaboration. Now 88 years of age, Varda might seem an odd match for the 33-year-old JR, known for his anonymity and the enormous blow-up photographs he erects semi-guerilla style in built-up urban spaces. But they have the streets in common – for JR, they are the world’s largest gallery; for Varda, a vast film set. What unfolds as they travel together around rural France in JR’s mobile photo booth is a shared vision of art and the world.
Early on Varda acknowledges the importance of seeing a face in order to truly know a person. JR – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jean-Luc Godard – sports dark sunglasses, which like Godard in Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962) he refuses to remove. As Varda says, “Every face tells a story,” and the faces she and JR photograph, collectively tell another story about the state of the nation, of industries in decline, and forgotten people. It is an approach that underlines Varda’s extraordinary humanism, and her continuing curiosity about the world. Faces Places is as much about her as it is about the working-class people she and JR meet and photograph. The colossal-sized images of their faces help to preserve her memories before they fall, as she says, into a hole. Varda’s eyesight is failing, and it was difficult not to view Faces Places as her farewell to cinema. “I can’t see you very well, but I see you,” she tells JR, when he finally removes his glasses as an act of kindness towards her at the end of a tough day. We see what we imagine she sees – JR’s face as an inscrutable blur. But Varda’s face is an open book, full of joy and gratitude, and the festival’s audience responded in the same way to her film.
Just as open and expressive is the face of nonagenarian, Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky (2017), the directorial debut from actor John Carroll Lynch. As the titular Lucky, Stanton remains a fascinating screen presence, lending weight to the quietest, stillest of acts. The screenplay, by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, was written with reference to Stanton’s own biography and with him in mind as a performer. Once seen, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor providing – what might have been just a fey American indie populated with quirky characters – a performance of such warmth and emotional depth.
Lucky is a small film about big things. After he has an unexplained fall in his kitchen, 90 year-old Lucky’s doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) matter-of-factly explains, “You are old and getting older.” But facing mortality is tough. Lucky’s life is regimented – yoga every morning, coffee, crossword puzzle at the diner, then home to watch game shows, and an evening drink or two at Elaine’s bar at night, where among the barflies sits his friend, Howard, a delightful and deeply affecting David Lynch. Lucky has a knack of drawing people to him. The townsfolk, whether at the diner or the grocery store where he buys milk and cigarettes everyday, care about him more than he knows. “There is no such thing as a soul,” Lucky bellows in a heightened moment of existential angst, at an insurance agent played by Ron Livingston, who is in the middle of counseling Howard after the disappearance of his beloved tortoise, President Roosevelt. But Lucky’s statement is simply not true. As an atheist, Lucky might believe there is nothing after death, but proof of the soul’s existence here on earth is written all over Stanton’s well lived-in, immensely empathetic face.
Three of the four films released by Hong Sang-soo in the past 12 months featured in a sidebar of MIFF’s International program. Of most interest, given the parallels to Hong’s highly publicised extramarital affair with actress, Kim Min-hee, was On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), which promised soul-searching and revelations over soju-soaked dinner table conversations. Like Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), On the Beach at Night Alone is a bifurcated narrative. In its first half we meet Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) who has taken refuge in Hamburg with a friend, while she deals with the end of her scandalizing affair with a married man, referred to only as ‘the director.’
Young-hee’s loneliness is palpable. In the film’s longer second section, she returns to Gangneung in South Korea, her hometown by the sea. We are unsure how much time has passed, but Young-hee’s wounds haven’t healed. Drunken dinners force uncomfortable truths; in one telling eruption, she accuses her friends of being “unqualified to love.” In a more vulnerable moment, she stands outside a café and sings. The line, “Can you see my heart?” encapsulates the expression on Min-hee’s beautiful face. It is a question that can only be answered by anyone watching her, with an emphatic yes.
Yourself and Yours (2016) and Claire’s Camera (2017) might be said to have ‘slighter’ narratives. But both films also see Hong continuing to push at something ultimately sobering about relationships between women and men. In Yourself and Yours, identity is explored through Min-jung’s (Lee You-young) repeated inquiry of the men she encounters. “Do you know me?” she asks. Min-jung has recently ended her relationship with a controlling boyfriend, Young-soo (Kim Joo-hyuck). After, we see interactions with other men who she may or may not have met before, forcing us to wonder who the real Min-jung is. Hong suggests that when we play the game of love we are rarely ourselves; our faces are masks we adopt to conceal some truth.
The stillness of Hong’s camera, and the repetition of themes may have frustrated some MIFF audience members, who were overheard (in real life and on social media) lamenting that the director is dully making the same film again and again. But these echoes invite contemplation. Hong’s unobtrusive camera openly asks us to consider the faces of his actors in the same way we might engage with a still photograph. It is an approach not dissimilar to the photographic project undertaken by Isabelle Huppert’s Claire in Claire’s Camera. “I’ve never been to Cannes before!” Claire declares (a statement that elicited the same laughter from Melbourne audiences as it did earlier this year at Cannes), as she walks around the city taking Polaroids. Her path crosses Mahnee’s (Kim Min-hee again), a sales agent for a film distributor who has recently been fired after sleeping with a director who was also having a relationship with her female boss. They strike up a friendship.
Claire’s Camera reveals its details slowly, as Claire’s photos become a magic mirror that allows Mahnee, her boss, and the director to see each other anew. Claire’s Camera sees the truth in Susan Sontag’s idea that when we photograph other people we see them as they never see themselves. Through the process of being looked at they are transformed. As Claire says, “The only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly.” It is what Hong asks of his audience too. Just when you think you’ve understood, he asks you to look again. For this viewer, it was a pleasure to submit to this mode of contemplation three times over.
It was “desire that led us to the lover,” Joan Allen’s ‘She’ explains in a moment of frank post-coital intimacy in Yes (2004), one of many highlights in MIFF’s Sally Potter Retrospective, timed to support her latest film, the acerbic and hilarious chamber piece, The Party (2017). Alongside Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017) and My Happy Family (Nana and Simon, 2017), Yes was also one of a number of films that provided mature explorations of what the face of female desire looks like on screen. Yes navigates this through sensual imagery and a bold colour palette but perhaps more radically, through talking. ‘She’ unhappily married to Anthony (Sam Neill) meets ‘He’ (Simon Abkarian) at a function where he is waiter. He’s a Lebanese-Muslim exile, and a doctor, but now works as a chef. “Conversation was an aphrodisiac once,” we are told, and the dialogue that shapes their affair, spoken almost entirely in iambic pentameter, lends romanticism and eroticism to their encounters. In one charged exchange in a London restaurant, ‘He’ may be doing something unseen beneath the table, but it’s their conversation that makes ‘She’ climax.
The passionate affair that follows brings them both to life, as they lose hours during the day in his flat. Abkarian, like Billy Zane in Orlando (1992) and Pablo Verón in The Tango Lesson (1997) before him, performs for that amorphous entity, the female gaze, embracing vulnerability, sensuality, and movement. While Potter is interested in what both ‘She’ and ‘He’ bring to this union, she stresses the force of female desire. When ‘He’ dances on top of a table for Allen’s gaze and in turn our own, it is a moment of unexpurgated sexual joy. He gives her his body; later, he asks for it back. It is similar to the push-pull at work in The Tango Lesson between Potter (playing a version of herself in this semi-autobiographical film) and Verón, where they constantly negotiate who takes the lead, both in the dance and in the film.
In Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur), Juliette Binoche’s face is luminous in its unguarded embrace of the power of ‘yes’. Recently divorced, Isabelle is an artist hungry for love but afraid she may never have a meaningful relationship with a man again. Denis lands us in the middle of Isabelle’s dilemma from the film’s opening scene. She is having sex with her married, banker lover and it reduces her to tears of emotional and physical dissatisfaction. There are other men, yet each is deemed deficient in some way. Let the Sunshine In is often extremely funny, and through Binoche’s sensual, intelligent portrait of a woman of a certain age, also painfully truthful. Denis’ trademark close-ups on characters implicate us in Isabelle’s fantasies of love – a dance sequence staged as romantic wish fulfillment to Etta James singing ‘At Last,’ the most fanciful of all. But as Denis makes clear, these are our fantasies too. Romance might be dead, but we keep on dancing to the routine.
Winner of the MIFF Audience Award for Best Feature, Call Me By Your Name (2017) explodes with romantic feeling despite understated direction from the often-showy Luca Guadagnino, a guest of the festival. The still moments are important ones. Call Me By Your Name concludes with an extended close-up on a face. The face in question belongs to 21-year-old Timothée Chalamet, the actor playing the film’s 17-year-old protagonist, Elio Perlman, who sits before a fire in the winter that follows the summer that has irrevocably changed his life. To say much more about the film’s final scene would truly spoil it for the uninitiated; on both occasions I saw it, its impact at the conclusion of a film already filled with acutely sensitive moments, was enormous. It is the culmination of a masterful performance at once nervous, raw, and playful; drawing together every feeling Chalamet has expressed over the course of two hours.
Call Me By Your Name
If there is a filmmaker working today who dares us to desire bodies, skin, touch, or food, more than Guadagnino does, I can’t name them. Call Me By Your Name, based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman, is a tactile, visceral film experience. It concentrates on six intense weeks in 1983, when 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student, stays at Elio’s family’s summer home in Northern Italy, to work on his book and assist Mr Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) in his research. The attraction between Elio and Oliver is immediately felt but takes its time. What follows is both sensual and plainly sexy; a film powerfully attuned to the vicissitudes of first love, especially the uncertainties of attraction and the doubts and distortions it creates. Call Me By Your Name is also specifically about queer desire, and for Elio, his love for Oliver involves a coming out that inflames, excites, and confuses him.
What is most striking in Guadagnino’s film is the urgency of Elio and Oliver’s togetherness. They don’t just fall for each other, but into each other. Guadagnino is attentive to the physical space that initially exists between them – whether it’s the bathroom that divides their bedrooms or their positions at opposite ends of the swimming pool – so that we feel, with increased intensity, the enormity of the gap that is bridged when they finally inch closer to each other’s bodies. Hammer, so handsome and golden here, mobilises the softness in his face to reveal a complexity as a performer he should explore more often. Guadagnino’s low-positioned camera accentuates Oliver’s status as an object of desire within the narrative, but Hammer’s tenderness and warmth guarantees that he is never beyond reach.
Call Me By Your Name treats queer desire with the utmost seriousness and sincerity. Elio first resents, then admires, maybe envies, and finally desires Oliver’s body with a propulsive carnality. He is awkward, but hungry to touch, to taste, and to feel. That’s the essence of the already infamous ‘peach scene’ – Elio’s need to absorb Oliver into himself (and then Oliver, Elio). To respond to it only with riotous laughter, is, I think, to miss this point. In love, there are both risks and rewards, and often, outrageous gestures. As that final close-up on Chalamet’s face makes clear, Elio has risked the most a person can risk – his heart.
Risks of a different kind are at play in another of MIFF’s strong line-up of queer-focused films, Eliza Hittman’s follow up to It Felt Like Love (2013), Beach Rats (2017). Set in South Brooklyn, it renders the world in which 19-year-old Frankie (Harris Dickinson) lives in grainy 16mm, giving it a washed out look. It is summer here too. But Frankie’s days contain few sensual delights – a restless routine of drinking and drugs, and games of handball with three young men he points out on multiple occasions are not really his friends. On Friday nights they take the train to Coney Island, ambling on the boardwalk under the fireworks. But from the privacy of the basement room where he prefers to sleep, Frankie trawls Brooklyn Boys, a gay chatroom. The shroud of this private lair emphasises his closeted status. Prospective hook ups comment that they can’t see his face because of the darkness in the room; when he turns the light on, the cap he keeps low on his forehead continues to hide him. His repeated refrain that, “I don’t really know what I like,” contains within it the suggestion that he doesn’t really know who he is either.
Hittman’s film, like Call Me By Your Name, and two other queer films of note, God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2017) and BPM (Robin Campillo, 2017), has a fiercely intimate, visceral style. Frankie and his friends are often presented shirtless. The camera stays close to sweaty skin as male bodies fill the frame. Yet there is a conflict in this presentation. Frankie’s body looks confident on its surface, but on the inside he’s a mess. He limits his anonymous sexual encounters to older men reducing the risk they will know anyone he does. Hittman renders the sex – on the beach, in bushes, in seedy motels – with a palpable sense of danger for Frankie alongside the thrill of carnal discovery. Beach Rats’ opening scene features a string of disembodied selfie poses that tell us Frankie is struggling to find a persona that fits him. By film’s end he isn’t any closer. His is a world that refuses to look at his real face, making it impossible for him to really see himself.
A strand of films boldly classified as ‘Experimentations’ focused on formal innovation and straddled the space between fiction and documentary features at MIFF. Towards the end of Sergei Loznitsa’s disquieting film, Austerlitz (2016), a female tourist poses for a photograph in front of what was once used as a crematorium. She smiles at her boyfriend, who is taking the photo, her arms outstretched as if she is claiming this space as her own. It is one moment among many that highlights the striking tension in Loznitsa’s film, between the faces of tourists wandering through the concentration camp memorials at Sachsenhausen and Dachau, and the absent faces of the millions who were slaughtered at both sites during the Holocaust.
Loznitsa set up his fixed camera during the European summer when the number of visitors to these camps, with their proximity to the big cities of Berlin and Munich, is high. The opening sequence captures the hordes entering the gates, posing under the Arbeit macht frei (“Work sets you free”) sign that greets them, as it did prisoners over 70 years ago. Many pose behind the bars, seemingly oblivious to the weight of these words. Cameras and phones are ubiquitous, alongside t-shirts that scream slogans like “Life was more relaxed when Apples and Blackberries were just fruits.” Later, it is the bits and pieces of commentary from various tour guides (tellingly among the film’s only audible dialogue) with its lack of any meaningful context, which amplifies our sense of disconnection between the tourists Loznitsa films and the site they are touring.
The camps are a place stained and shaped by history. We don’t remake them by walking through them, by touring them. Loznitsa’s camera is austere – it simply observes as the people come and go, it doesn’t offer a point of view on how they are dressed or how they behave. But that doesn’t mean audiences won’t. How you respond to Austerlitz will depend greatly on how you feel about Holocaust tourism to begin with (I am not a fan). It is true that the tourists have little to do but look. But Loznitsa’s film inadvertently pushes the question, escaping from amidst the selfie sticks and smiles – what is it they are really seeing, if they are seeing anything at all?
Resurrecting faces and places that have been silent for many years is central to Bill Morrison’s latest documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), which unearths a city’s history and reveals how integral cinema is as a document of that history. Dawson City – on the Yukon River and the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush – is a city repeatedly burnt down and remade again. The cause of these fires – hundreds of reels of volatile silver nitrate that repeatedly burst into flames, highly combustible when not stored at the right temperature. In 1978, a construction worker unearthed over 500 reels of silent films, discarded due to storage issues but preserved in the permafrost. Some had been dumped in the river, the majority buried under the site of an old indoor swimming pool. Morrison uses archival photos, silent documentary footage, and what has become known as the Dawson City Film Find, to show the powerful intersection between the gold rush and the birth of cinema in one city’s history.
“Film was born of an explosive,” we are told, and cinema indeed has explosive power. When film came to Dawson City in the early years of the 20th century, an entire world beyond the Yukon flickered across the screen. With its haunting score composed by Alex Somers, Dawson City: Frozen Time works like a fever dream – an assemblage of collective memories, of faces and places we didn’t know we shared. In the end, this is the timeless gift that cinema grants to all its faces – each frozen in time, each always within the scope of our gaze, from either inside the world that flickers on the screen at a film festival like MIFF, or far beyond.
Melbourne International Film Festival
Festival website: http://miff.com.au