To shape a schedule that hits on the best of the 500 titles in Rotterdam’s jammed program depends on a combination of good tips, luck and intuition. When only in town a few days, a degree of hit-and-miss randomness inevitably prevails. At such a festival, which prides itself on championing bold risk and new voices with the same enthusiasm as established, predictably dependable directors, this kind of blind exploration can make surprise finds all the more exhilarating. But perhaps the best upside of taking an idiosyncratic path through the sprawling mix is that thematic echoes and unexpected links between films can occur, in a cross-pollination of ideas that brings new light to all. This year, the festival’s 46th, I was already thinking a lot about the commodification of time (a compacted agenda will do that) when I realised that the demands of working hung in the air like smog in many of the films I saw. Identity has fragmented on screen via a capitalism that characters can increasingly sense no outside to, and which feels ever-more complex and baffling in the roles it requires.
A gloriously comprehensive retrospective on Czech New Wave auteur Jan Němec screened his hallucinatory masterpiece on the Holocaust, Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964), paired with his short adaptation of an Arnošt Lustig story, Sousto (A Loaf of Bread, 1960). Trauma in these films shades a world made impossible to understand or know. But in the latter, life has been pared down to brutal survival to such an extent that the goal for some young prisoners is demeaningly, animalistically simple: to run to a Nazi train, steal bread and return, in the number of counted beats available before the guard rounds the carriage. It’s an almost unbearable work of suspense, and a sobering counterpoint to the vague, muted ennui that typifies the mood of what we might call a cinema of the comfortably oppressed. A need of exertion for subsistence is acknowledged in these films too, but its urgency is more often than not convoluted in a mutable haze of options.
“We are children from the ‘90s and adults from the 2010s,” says lead character Pia in HEIS (chroniques). “We moved from baby’s bottles to unemployment almost without transition.” French filmmaker Anaïs Volpé brought the film as one component of a cross-media project to Rotterdam, and plays the irresolute lead herself. Put together over two years in Beijing, it seems very much sourced from her own experiences. Pia is a 25 year-old graduate struggling to find her bearings in a state of uncertainty about her future. Her dream is to making a living from her art, but amid economic realities and a sense of getting nowhere fast she has moved back in with her mother. Her twin brother Sam (Mathieu Longatte) is also living there, in a similar state of arrested development in his efforts for a career as a professional boxer. While they bicker, she works away on her portfolio and grant applications with glue and scissors – and a camera.
Statistics about the high rate of joblessness of young Europeans under the age of 25 punctuate Pia’s voiceover commentary. She lists negative things she doesn’t have: an incurable disease, a hacked Facebook account, close ones lost in a terrorist attack. “All in all, I think everything’s fine,” she says, without conviction. It’s an accurate summation of the neurotic weighing up of modern life. Amid an avalanche of media input and diabolical news, where is the anchor around which to evaluate ourselves? Are we doing okay, or not? It’s a thin line of perception. Pia and Sam were born the day before the Berlin Wall came down. There’s an implicit pressure of expectation in this; that they were meant to embody the promise of a better world. That optimism has since evaporated.
The general feeling you get from HEIS (chroniques) is of porousness, and undefined boundaries. There is a real sense of possibility and curiosity in this, but also a balking, non-committal indecision. It’s a film whose form insists that any and all of life might be art, while simultaneously revealing that to be an avoidance tactic for what is really at stake. To define the contours of life as a professional artist might just mean having to cut ties with what’s been outgrown; or, to concede defeat. So Pia almost compulsively records, adorns, replicates. The film is an episodic collage of home video, old photographs, performative dream sequences, conversations and musings; an experimental mash-up that is as frothily playful and vibrant as it is melancholy. Spilling out from the confines of the feature format, Volpé’s video diary was expanded at Rotterdam into an installation, HEIS (on the wall) – an approximation of a living room, with markers of her life (paint tubes, and cover letters for endless job applications) strewn about. An untethered urge to collect experience buzzes through all. For what ends? It feels messy and unsure. But there is a beating heart to detect within it, and in its hyper-productive inertia the very imprint of zeitgeist.
The undertow of sadness in the film comes from Pia’s difficulty in reconciling her own notions of home. “Heis” is a Greek word meaning “to be one” – a sense of self-fulfilment. All these scraps and musings herald a psyche in desperation to assemble. When Pia learns one of her applications has finally been accepted and she has been offered a residency in China, she considers turning it down. It’s a maddening moment that seems on one level the very embodiment of complacent privilege and knowing the true value of nothing (she says, instead, she aims to be like the man who won the lottery twice). But on another level, accepting would represent to her an almost violent dismantling of a notion of family she regards her mother as being wholly invested in.
Her mother (captivatingly played by the late Akéla Sari) is an immigrant from the Mediterranean. Pia angles to know more about the past she rarely elaborates on; to alleviate a rootlessness that might provide a compass. Pia’s father left the marriage, and there are hints the life of her mother – who once dreamt of travelling to Asia herself – was one of diminished options and emotional resources. As Pia interviews her she speaks shyly and reluctantly into the camera, but we sense hidden planets of emotion. Her daughter exists across a generational gulf. She asks Pia: “Is it the most important thing to try to follow through on our dreams? Or to resign yourself to giving them up?”
A drifting, generational torpor is also the status quo of the privileged Buenos Aires millennials of Kékszakállú, by Argentinian director Gastón Solnicki, which plays like a beautifully evocative and minimalist satire of this heavily class-based milieu, and screened in Rotterdam’s Bright Future strand. Laila Maltz is spot on as a self-entitled daughter who can’t afford to move out of home but lacks the backbone to throw herself with any gusto into work at her father’s factory. She feels completely at sea when it comes to choosing a creative major, some of which she’s never even heard of (“What’s industrial design? I didn’t know such a career existed,” she asks on an open day.) Like the other young women in this episodic portrait, her problem is not one of limited options, but a cloistered lack of urgency and numb comfort from having never struggled for anything. These unnamed women preen and lie around aesthetically arresting shots that breathe little and might as well be magazine stills; a lifestyle that is enacted between the swimming pools and modern homes of Buenos Aires and the well-to-do holiday spot of Punta del Este. They dress up and attend the opera. It’s Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, from which the film gets its Hungarian title. The link isn’t as tenuous as it may first appear, since its basis is a fairytale about leaving home, and a curiosity that prompts the discovery of unimaginable horrors. The world of adulthood in all its dramatic possibility and terror summons them. Calm veneers cannot hold off the unknown.
More conventional in form but also highly attuned to the nebulous, stifling indirection that can infuse modern urban living, where an endless string of offhand choices and shambolic encounters can mask a terror of really deciding on anything, is feature debut Daphne by Peter Mackie Burns. Screened in the Limelight strand, it is an impressive snapshot of trauma brought on by a universal realisation: that everyone dies eventually, and often suddenly. A spiky and nuanced Emily Beecham carries the film as Daphne, a 31 year-old with a cynical, razor-sharp wit who works in the kitchen of a London restaurant – a job she’d like to progress upward from but can barely get it together enough to keep. Frequently obnoxious, she pushes people away who risk getting closer than a one-night stand (strangers who do not present this threat she has less problem with), and gets wasted too often to focus on more than getting through hungover days. A young heroine who spurns the kind overtures of others and brings few warmer qualities to soften her lack of pliability is likely to elicit an especially punishing audience reaction, and many (predominantly male, I dare to add) reviewers cited her “unlikeability” and their aversion to spending any screen time with her as a deal-breaker on the film. But there are multitudes of people like her in London. It’s a refreshingly recognisable portrait of the struggling-to-get-by, emotionally disconnected mentality the notoriously isolating and economically brutal English capital is awash with (the vibrant textures and energy of London’s streets and mixed population are also beautifully captured, making this a clear-eyed yet affectionate take on this city of contradictions). What’s more, it’s made very evident Daphne’s anti-social behaviour is a reflex to the serious illness of her mother (who is experimenting with Buddhism to cope), her unfaced fear of mortality compounded by witnessing a stabbing. It’s a simple reality that trauma and displaced anger are breeding grounds for more undesirable behaviour, and the filmmaker’s honesty in depicting this subconscious impact as opposed to a sweet nobility in martyred suffering is bracing. Daphne’s steps in admitting and dealing with her problems are small and incremental. It’s really a life at a crossroads, and a film propelled from being just another inconsequential indie about rudderless millennials into a thoughtful and bittersweet take on human connectivity amid inevitable pain. Nathaniel Martello-White generates palpable warmth as one of Daphne’s love interests. This is certainly not a film that takes pleasure in misanthropy, and as in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, we’re left with a hopeful, prescriptive vision, that suggests emotionally generous resilience is a widespread, healing counter-force.
Daphne’s workplace is the hub of many of the film’s interactions, and the banal pressure of having to get through a shift to pay the bills while personal problems press and bigger dreams recede into the background is ever-present. Personal Shopper by prolific French auteur Olivier Assayas, also screening in the Limelight section, makes the split identities and oppressive power dynamics engendered by capitalism’s freelance, mobile lifestyles central to the conflict within its main protagonist Maureen (a brilliantly nervy, spiky turn from Kristen Stewart). Maureen is employed by a fashion-world celebrity to zip between Paris and London, picking up high-end designer outfits and accessories to enable her boss to look the part when papped. But the film’s title is a provocation, in that Maureen would hate to be defined by her role, even while trying on the costly, sensual items behind her employer’s back turns her on. The money is good but she heavily resents the job – not just for her boss’s tyrannical, self-absorbed manner, but also because it bores her and keeps her from her real obsession: trying to commune psychically with her dead twin. The difference in registers between these two pursuits is a bizarre and interesting pairing that takes the film beyond what might otherwise have been just a breezy lampoon of industry narcissism, or a straight-up supernatural thriller. Souls can slip away just as easily through compromising real connection to the corrupting economic demands of the marketplace, as they can to actual death – and a twist shows consumerism’s seductive forces to be as sinister as any séance.
Even for the full-time artists of Polish director Lukasz Ronduda’s Serce miłości (A Heart of Love), which had its world premiere in the Bright Future strand, the sheen of designer products is ever-present. Its slick world is one where carefully constructed outer image co-exists with explosive emotional forces. It portrays the relationship breakdown between a creative couple (fictionalised from the lives of Warsaw artists Wojtek Bąkowski and Zuzanna Bartoszek). For all the pair’s defiant eccentricities there is a strong aspirational drive (they want to be seen and admired) that suggests a conflicted relationship with a consumerist lifestyle. Products and brand names are taken on as raw material in performance pieces. The possibilities for social-media selfies offered by a mall’s lighting fixture display are leapt on by the obsessively fashion co-ordinated couple; turning on all the home appliances during a fight becomes a cacophonous retort. These artists do not so much dissect society and its relatively new capitalism or strip themselves bare of inessentials, as try to digest, govern and assert themselves within the onslaught of a whole new range of marketed options. In spite of their intuitive bond and professed open relationship ideals, they founder in competition with one another in a conventionally patriarchal imbalance, as the older and already established Wojtek steals a strange night dream Zuzanna tells him about to use in his art. Livid, she asks him to edit it out. He refuses. Ego trumps intimate boundaries – a transgression that in a strong final scene he takes to a more psychologically callous extreme.
Taking questions of role-playing, professional self-definition and contextual cages to a whole other metaphysical level is Julian Rosefeldt’s thrilling experiment Manifesto, which screened in the Bright Future strand. Cate Blanchett proved her talent for screen transformation before as one of several incarnations of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ innovative 2007 take on the biopic I’m Not There. In Manifesto she takes that gift to extremes with no less than 13 different roles. Shot in Berlin, the project was originally shown in galleries as a multi-screen installation, and has the actress voice excerpts from the artist tracts of different eras. Whether she’s a prim homemaker intoning Malevich’s Suprematist call for truth over sincerity to her children at the dinner table as if it were grace, a dishevelled homeless man in an apocalyptic wasteland declaring the old world dead, or a wasted party reveller praising a century illuminated by electricity, Blanchett’s performance has a chameleon bravura that turns what could have been a dry conceptual exercise into a hilariously absurdist provocation. Back to back, these mutable incarnations filled with the words of male, would-be artistic prophets show how much ideology is defined by context – and by defamiliarising the sense of these situations by introducing out-of-place texts, just how much our interactions and identities are circumscribed by familiar rituals scripted by habit. To act appropriately to your station, and to play by the dominant rules – mightn’t it be the most soul-destroying job of all?
International Film Festival Rotterdam
25 January – 5 February 2017
Festival website: https://iffr.com/en