The single strangest effect the pandemic’s had on me is that I seem to have changed the way I walk. I don’t mean how I walk indoors, or at home, but how I stroll around cities, the one I live in and those I visit. It’s as if the past three years and the countless months of lockdown had made me more susceptible to the relentless stimuli of the streets, turning me into a kind of chronic tourist, eyes bloodshot with seeing and head tilted skyward, more curious, more alert, but also more confused—a perpetual stranger even on my own turf.

I say all of this because I wonder if the same has happened to the filmmakers who’ve sought to capture these years of limbo; if the defining feature of what we now refer to as “pandemic cinema” isn’t just a question of limitations, but a different way of relating with and capturing the spaces we inhabit; as if camera and characters were suddenly more responsive to textures and details they’d long ignored—in the words of Don DeLillo, “the beauty of things that are normally unseen.”

I’d been mulling over this for a while, but it was only in Vienna, watching Gastón Solnicki’s A Little Love Package – my first screening at the 60th Viennale – that I saw this restless wonder through someone else’s eyes. A Little Love Package had been shot in Vienna, in the middle of the pandemic; among many other things, the film is a singular tribute to the city itself. It’s here that Angeliki (Yorgos Lanthimos’ long-time collaborator Angeliki Papoulia) wants to settle; having drafted her friend and interior designer Carmen (Carmen Chaplin) she embarks on a flat hunt that sends her hopscotching across the city. It’s 2019, and Vienna has just outlawed smoking inside cafés, an event Solnicki treats as an irretrievable loss: the end of an era. A Little Love Package teems with such warnings, shots designed to signal the perishability of all you see. So ethereal are its images you wonder if they’ll disappear if you just look away. And yet, the film conjures something more than mere nostalgia. Vienna, as Solnicki imagines it and as Rui Poças shoots it, is a source of endless wonder, less a museum than a haunted house, a dormant giant that breathes through creaking floorboards and trams schlepping up and down the Danube. 

A Little Love Package

This is not the first time Solnicki’s roamed Vienna; his 2018 Introduzione all’Oscuro, a farewell letter to his friend and the late Viennale director Hans Hurch, sent a flaneur walking around the capital. Nor is the loose-limbed, make-it-up-on-the-spot approach entirely novel. As he did for his earlier projects, Solnicki shot A Little Love Package without a script, allowing the plot, such as it is, to emerge from a series of vignettes loosely anchored to Angeliki’s fruitless search for a new home. To criticise the film’s meandering structure is to play in the director’s hands. Watching A Little Love Package, I had the feeling the film kept running away from me; where other directors often strain to connect the dots, Solnicki seems determined to do the opposite. As so it is that Angeliki’s peregrinations are interrupted by seemingly unrelated musings and cul-de-sacs: a voiceover informs us of meteorites slingshot from Mars all the way to our planet; we hear of the first nuclear reaction, two million years ago in what is now Gabon; we leave Vienna and wind up – for a few, entrancing seconds only – on the shores of a lake covered in salt, a storm stalking a mountain ridge in the far distance; and then we’re in Malaga, at which point the film turns into Carmen’s story, following her far-flung family as they negotiate future plans. 

I’m sure the languid, meandering pace might frustrate some; to me, it was rejuvenating, not least because the endless digressions struck me as symptomatic of a restless mind at work. Slowly, and fuelled by John Cage’s 1948 Dream, A Little Love Package drifts into a nebulous region suspended in time and space, where characters do not inhabit dim-lit cafés so much as haunt them, and the boundaries between different eras – for a film that’s so concerned with the passing of time – are constantly and purposely blurred. 

Few other titles emanated a similar supernatural aura – Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men, a standout from last year’s Directors Fortnight in Cannes, followed a volunteer as she studied the flora of an uninhabited Cornish island only to be swept up in a series of increasingly sinister visions of its past dwellers, while Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter captured a mother and daughter (both played by Tilda Swinton) in a ghost story that was also, as so often is the case for Hogg’s cinema, the chronicle of an artistic education. Fewer directors still seemed to match Solnicki’s restless gaze and curiosity. Unsurprisingly, among them was Werner Herzog, whom the Viennale invited to read excerpts of his forthcoming memoir and screen his last two documentaries, Theatre of Thought and The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft. There was also a documentary about the 80-year-old director, Thomas von Steinaecker’s unabashedly reverent Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer, which I caught a few hours before Theatre of Thought, making for an illuminating study in contrasts, as Radical Dreamer offers little that’s new or revealing about its subject. True, Herzog has by now carved out such a prominent if unlikely role in pop culture that virtually all of his legendary anecdotes have been relayed and dissected ad nauseam, from the time he ate his shoe to the day he was shot while chatting with Mark Kermode (a milestone von Steinaecker makes sure to include). 

Still, as the film trailed behind Herzog in a loosely chronological trip down memory lane – a portrait of the director as a young man stranded in Bavaria who went on to become an august master headquartered in L.A. – the feeling was not one of discovery, but déjà-vu. There are intriguing moments. Von Steinaecker drives with Herzog to the director’s childhood home and follows him to a nearby waterfall where young Werner used to spend his days—a Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) moment that’s possibly the most heartfelt sequence in a film where the cardinal emotion is one of mystical veneration. We hear from Herzog’s collaborators too, including one who reveals the iconic “deranged penguin” moment in his 2007 Encounters at the End of the World was essentially a hoax. And we get to visit Herzog’s new L.A. haunts, among them the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a cauldron of oddities and anachronistic inventions that doubles as a present-day wunderkammer. “America got Herzog,” New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber says halfway through, “and he certainly got America.” How and why that happened, though, von Steinaecker doesn’t really say. His reticence to venture beyond mere hagiography isn’t a bug so much as a feature of Radical Dreamer

Theatre of Thought

On the upside, watching von Steinaecker’s film right before Herzog’s served as a powerful reminder of what makes the octogenarian’s work so vibrant and combative – his inordinate curiosity. Theatre of Thought offers an intricate and fitfully entrancing journey into the mysteries of the human brain. In it, Herzog tours universities and labs to sit with the world’s leading neuroscientists, but also innovators working at Facebook, IBM, and other tech giants. What kicks off as a wide-eyed exploration of our grey matter gradually morphs into a more sombre meditation on the scope of the latest neural technology (from A.I. to experiments in telepathy), and the limits we should set to these advances. How do we balance the right to one’s neural privacy with one’s right to be helped through tech? Theatre of Thought touches on intricate and complex topics, with a patois that may be tricky to follow. Herzog knows this, and there are times he intercedes for us, pleading his talking heads to slow down, clarify, spell out, injecting some levity into the discussions. As he wraps a lengthy one with IBM’s Director of Research Darío Gil, he candidly confesses, in voiceover, “I’ll admit I had no idea what he was talking about”. Later, in a chat with married couple Nobel laureate Richard Axel and neurobiologist Cori Bargmann, he asks the couple if they ever have different opinions, prompting Axel’s wry comeback: “we try to never talk about science unless it’s something really fascinating.”

Yet these moments never dumb down the film’s inquiry. And if Theatre of Thought is often humorous, it is also a vivid distillation of Herzog’s own hunger for knowledge: “How does music affect our soul?” “Could there be axioms of feelings?” “Could we ever communicate with animals?” Herzog’s questions say more about the filmmaker than anything else in the doc, and the image they conjure of the man behind the camera is that of an indomitable wanderer. Sure, Theatre of Thought can – much like A Little Love Package – prove alienating in its endless meandering, but that’s part of the point. Throughout, Herzog deviates and digresses. A chat with one of Siri’s co-creators swells into a discussion around fish the minute Herzog glances past his interviewee and becomes mesmerised by his fish tank. These digressions can be confounding, but they’re neither pauses nor ruptures. They’re extensions of Herzog’s own imagination, and integral to his project, which, as befits its subjects, unfolds as a sprawling, erratic web of connections, some more explicit than others. Of all things, Theatre of Thought brought me back to Herzog’s 2019 Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, a luminous tribute from the filmmaker to his late friend and literary icon. Like Chatwin, Herzog is a professional peripatetic, and the many roundabouts in his latest doc only testify to his voracious and contagious inquisitiveness. One can criticise Theatre of Thought in other respects. For one thing, there’s only so much beauty and dynamism Herzog can wring out of his talking heads shots, and the film’s rich themes are sometimes undercut but its unimaginative and repetitive visual grammar, making for a lopsided journey. But to chastise Herzog for his erratic quest is to misunderstand his artistry: the childlike restlessness which makes his projects so joltingly alive. 

Isn’t it odd that the wildest, most audacious – in other words, the most youthful – films I caught in Vienna were made not by newcomers but by august masters decades into their careers? Attending the Viennale meant a second shot at EO, Jerzy Skolimowski’s kinetic riff on Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, a portrait of a donkey going through a Passion of the Christ-like odyssey that proved spellbinding with its many near-extra-terrestrial shots. There was also time for another go at David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, a film that seemed to unspool as a symposium, where conversations about bodies were just as important as the surgeries and performances conducted on them. I’d seen Crimes of the Future in Cannes already; it was one of the two films from that fest I distinctly remember thinking would only grow on me at each subsequent watch. The other was Claire Denis’ Stars At Noon, which I saw again in a packed Gartenbaukino.

Stars at Noon

Based on Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel The Stars at Noon, a romance set in 1984 during the Nicaraguan Revolution, the film transposes the action to our present-day Covid zeitgeist. Margaret Qualley plays Trish, a New York journalist stranded in Managua. With no cash, papers or commissions, her only hope of making ends meet is to sell herself to the local powers that be in exchange for foreign goods and protection. Things change once she meets and falls for Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a consultant for a British oil company on the run from the CIA and their Central American associates. Trish flees with Daniel, and the film tracks the couple along a sweaty and carnal escapade, with the two fucking their way to the border with Costa Rica as eldritch faces stalk their trip. 

Alwyn plays Daniel like a colonial sphinx, clad head to toes in white linen, taciturn, evasive. The one time his shield shatters, he’s swaying with Qualley to Tindersticks’ own “Stars at Noon,” early into their escape, in a neon-lit bar of which they’re the only patrons. “I’m sorry,” he mutters, pulling away, after the two have spent the whole song clinging to each other like lifejackets. It’s the film’s most harrowing sequence, and it is exemplary of the pas de deux Denis stages, and of the mute, inert foil Alwyn will be to Qualley. (He’s still a more intriguing figure than the man Johnson had crafted: “a giant nonentity,” with “pudding-like and ghostly features,” whose face “you couldn’t remember even while staring straight into it”). Opposite him, Qualley is a force of nature. The mess she nosedives into swells into an international conspiracy, but even at her lowest, her Trish radiates a fiery dignity. Her primary drive is one of self-preservation. Few filmmakers are as adept as Denis at depicting the transactional dimensions of desire, and Stars at Noon continues her career-long preoccupation with capital. In a film that’s about money as much as anything else, love too can be forsaken for a passport and a few wads of cash. 

But I think the Tindersticks moment also exemplifies a salient trait of Denis’ cinema: its tactility. Qualley and Alwyn’s cheeks glued to each other, his hands running through her hair, hers clasped over his nape… Here as in several other stops along the lovers’ ride, Denis frames their romance as a tactile experience, an encounter between two strangers who are also – perhaps before anything else – two bodies. All the dancing and the fucking, the kissing and the sucking, have a tragic aftertaste. Stars at Noon follows two drifters as they hold onto each other while the world around them crumbles. Their flight and love are doomed; the tragedy is that they won’t know it – or will pretend not to know it – until it’ll all be too late. 


Touch was also the cardinal sense of another Viennale standout and Cannes import. Aftersun, by Charlotte Wells, tracks a thirty-something father and his 11-year-old daughter as they holiday somewhere in Turkey in the late 1990s. The father’s Calum (Paul Mescal), the girl Sophie (Frankie Corio), and Aftersun is her story, by which I mean that, save for a few brief segments, everything we see or hear is seen or heard from her perspective. Sophie herself straddles two eras. There’s the pre-teen enjoying a few days with her dad (Calum’s separated, which makes the father-daughter getaway all the more sacred), and there’s the young woman she turned into, to whom the mementos from the trip, years into the future, offer the mirage of a resurrection. 

That’s the miracle Aftersun courts: the idea that something of ours may outlive us, and that those who go on living can bring us back through the things we leave behind: a rug, a home movie, a dance, a sentence. Part of me wants to think of the whole film as an act of recollection, which it is, technically. Wells bookends and intersperses it with shots of present-day Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) replaying those clips from years back; she’s the film’s protagonist and its narrative engine. But I fear the description doesn’t quite account for the sort of remembrance Wells is after. Like Sophie, a character split across time, the film itself seems to hang in a liminal space, perched between the material and immaterial world – tactile souvenirs and more evanescent details. Wells understands memory as an imperfect exercise: a digging up of the past, surely, but also a filling in the gaps which time carved out. Sophie doesn’t recollect those days abroad, exactly. She conjures them, and the diary she stitches together is all the more vivid for being so malleable, ethereal, and incomplete. 

Aftersun is a cumulatively harrowing journal, but what’s most extraordinary about it is the balance Wells strikes between sorrow and bliss. Sophie may well be at the centre of it all, yet her coming of age – her burgeoning awareness of her body and sexuality – is interwoven with her father’s melancholy. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Aftersun would have splintered into two markedly different stories running parallel to each other; Wells finds a way to make them coalesce. Her film hopscotches between moments of shared, unbridled joy and private sadness. In turns boisterous and lacerating, it’s in tune with both young Sophie’s youthful energy and Calum’s haunting epiphany that this miraculous father-daughter reunion is already falling indelibly into the past. Aftersun was my last Viennale screening. I left the Urania and walked back to my hotel, late at night, filled with a sense of longing for a childhood reverie that never belonged to me, but for 96 scintillating minutes I was sure it did. Then I got to my room and began to write. 

20 October – 1 November 2022
Festival website: https://www.viennale.at/

About The Author

Leonardo Goi is a film critic and staff writer at MUBI. Aside from Senses of Cinema, his bylines regularly appear at The Film Stage, Reverse Shot, Film Comment, and other outlets. He runs the Berlinale Talents Critics Lab and the Golden Apricot Film Festival's Young Critics Campus.

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