11 Ways of Looking at a Film Festival: Notes on Beauty in Trouble, Hula Girls, Más que a nada en el mundo, The Violin, Away From Her, Jindabyne, Belle Toujours, Perhaps Love, Climates, Avenue Montaigne, and Private Fears in Public Places

belletoujoursDinner is served! Ogier and Piccoli face off in Oliveira’s Belle Toujours, the tastiest dish at this year’s PIFF. (Photo courtesy of New Yorker Films)

Officially, I covered the 30th annual Portland International Film Festival (February 9-25, 2007) for Willamette Week. Some of what I have to say here first appeared in its pages in different form.

On the surface, it may not seem as if I enjoyed myself. I panned nearly everything, and of the movies I saw but didn’t review, I hated almost all of them. I walked out on several, beginning with Czech director Jan Hrebejk’s unwatchable piece of vulgarity Beauty in Trouble, which struck me as the kind of bad film wherein we, the trapped audience members, are expected to identify with, even to applaud, the blue-collar, car-thieving vermin on-screen, except that I didn’t, wouldn’t, and couldn’t. Hrebejk’s lumpen proles and their shrieking relatives are so repellent it’s impossible to feel anything other than disgust. There are seemingly endless shots of unattractive nude bodies splayed across beds, and throughout a sitcom aesthetic prevails. Foreign films pitched to the undemanding lowbrows who overpopulate American art-houses are nothing new, yet nearly every foreign film I see now has the same dismal goal in mind: to appeal to Americans who have no taste, even if the likelihood of said Americans actually seeing one of these bombs remains fairly slim.

Japan’s Hula Girls serves as another case in point. Let me quote myself from the February 14 issue of WW: “Any chance that this might’ve been good kitsch flies out the window in the face of plodding direction, overacting that’s screechy and gooey at the same time, and schizoid screenwriting that veers between pratfalls, stuck zippers, and child abuse. Coal miners’ daughters learn to shimmy when a Hawaiian theme park invades their provincial town, but the trite scenario is as rancid as last year’s sesame oil, though Yasuko Matsuyuki shows a trace of freshness as the chain-smoking, bored-out-of-her-mind hula instructor.” So there you have it: an admixture of dumb gags and emotionally exploitative sentiment, topped by an assortment of typo-ridden, grammatically incorrect subtitles – the state of foreign film in the U.S. today. (And while I’m here, I’ll add that all that (and more) applies as aptly to Almodóvar’s boring, insipid Volver, a movie so tasteless that only self-deceiving yuppies with good medical coverage could mistake it for anything but trash. The orchestral score by Alberto Iglesias was sumptuous – I’ll grant that – especially the passages for harp that Skaila Kanga played to perfection.)

But back to PIFF: I had a wonderful time! I guess it was the act of seeing so many movies in swift succession again. In 2006, I attended no major festivals and two minor ones. 2006 was the year I pretty much stayed home from movies period. Whether I semi-liked something (Fast Food Nation and The Painted Veil certainly have their merits) or felt like taking an ax to it (Roger Michell’s Venus) there was never quite a compelling reason to raise quill to parchment. Of the films I managed to review over the last few weeks (and a bad day at a press screening almost always scores over a good day at work, or at least that’s how I feel now) I’m glad I met them, even if I clobbered them.

anything in the worldTo start with a movie I hadn’t previously written about, I caught the Mexican film Más que a nada en el mundo (More Than Anything in the World) during PIFF’s third and final weekend. The picture appears to have been made by persons who ought to have survivor’s guilt, but owing to a shallowness of character are afflicted instead by survivor’s arrogance. In its depiction of little girls who are spooked by the specters of vampires, the movie owes a lot to Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, but this is much lower than that. I kept wanting to walk out, yet on I stayed through the desperately bad performance by Elizabeth Cervantes as a single mom who never hesitates to swear in front of her 8-year-old daughter. The scuzz clings to Cervantes’ Emilia, a woman whose most treasured words are “fuck” and “asshole,” and who always needs a man around, no matter how dreary or tawdry the men may be, and they’re all dreary and tawdry, a collection of stale suits from her accounting office. The full-breasted Emilia is rarely shown without a cigarette in hand; after a while I could almost smell (and retch from) the acrid stench of the old smoke on her fingers, in her apartment carpets. As far as parenting, Emilia does just about everything wrong, mainly in persistent screaming at her lonely child. Julia Urbini does well as the tormented Alicia, and the blonde Amira Aguilar is even better in the small role of her school friend Lucia, a girl of delicate confidence who relays information about vampires in the most beautifully neutral tones. Aguilar steals every scene she’s in, and on some level the inept filmmakers must sense this: they keep cutting away from her to go back to what we’ve already seen too much of. What leaves such a sour taste about this picture is its cruel depiction of a dying elderly neighbor who wastes away on the same floor as Emilia and Alicia. He’s treated almost exclusively in horror movie terms, without dignity, without empathy, as a scapegoat for things that go bump in the night, and when the movie has the nerve to end on a sunny beach, it seems the ultimate slap in the face to this anonymous old man’s suffering. The ambient guitar strumming on the soundtrack, by a band called Austin TV, sounds quite nice; I hear a slight Bernard Sumner influence in their playing – not a bad thing to be reminded of.

violinDon Ángel Tavira plays The Violin (photo courtesy of Cámara Carnal Films)

Additionally, I saw four other Mexican films, three of them not worth mentioning by name. But the last of these, Francisco Vargas Quevedo’s The Violin, represents a mature kind of filmmaking that’s almost completely absent, not only from this festival, but from new films that seep into the States at almost any other time. After weeks on end (or is it months or years?) of forced whimsicality from even the paltriest budgets, I knew from The Violin’s first shot that the director has something to say. Vargas assumes we know at least a bit about the recent history of Mexico or that we don’t mind doing a little work. There are no screen titles to tell us what part of his country we’re in or during which era; Martín Boege Paré’s black and white cinematography, in tandem with the poverty of the villages, could locate us anywhere in the past 50 or 60 years. In a sequence of a man being chased by soldiers, the tall grasses of the underbrush merge with the textures of the rocks, cave fissures, and mountains that define the land – a visual equivalent, surely, to the runner’s sense of headlong rush. In one of Vargas and Paré’s most magnificent touches, a scrawny peasant grandfather (unsentimentally acted by the octogenarian Don Ángel Tavira) tells his young grandson, who’s perhaps aged 10, the story of the world’s creation by the Gods, which, in short order, becomes a story of the injustice and inequality of the world; during Tavira’s fable-like re-telling, the camera rolls over nighttime exteriors, casually ambling from the ground to the tree branches up high, and beyond that to an exquisitely framed shot of a full moon – it comes into view just as the off-screen voices taper away. The Violin is a war movie. A war of disenfranchised citizens against an armed-to-the-teeth military. That we don’t know which war doesn’t diminish the weight of tears inside. Since watching the film, I’ve learned that it was shown at Cannes last year, won a well-deserved award for Tavira, but to date has no U.S. distributor. I would call that criminal neglect on the part of our cultural gatekeepers. The Violin may not be a perfect work of art; humanity needs it, however, and as for Tavira, he effortlessly rises to the same down-to-earth plateau where we find Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake.

My biggest disappointment at PIFF was Away From Her, an adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” What I wrote in WW was: “I have loved Julie Christie ever since I was taken to see Heaven Can Wait as a wee bairn, and I’d hoped to love her in this, too, but Sarah Polley, making an inauspicious directorial debut, renders that impossible. Polley deprives Christie (and us) of her British accent, and without that impeccable lilt, Christie’s vocal rhythms are way off. It’s often hard to hear her – the movie’s soundtrack is a little muddy. The revelation here comes from Michael Murphy in a nonverbal role as an Alzheimer’s patient. The frowning, silent way he passively wrests whatever power remains for him, and the burbling cries he emits when someone frightens him, are devastating reminders of what superb acting is all about.”

awayfromherI don’t have much to add to that, but what I will say depends on you having already read the Munro source material or seen the film at Toronto or Sundance, because I think it necessary to give the ending away in order to describe why the film is a cheat. Unless a filmmaker happens to be a very great artist, and Sarah Polley isn’t, it’s nearly impossible to transmute the ambiguity of an author’s final paragraph into visual terms that will make movie sense. On the page, Munro’s deliberate omissions (and I don’t have the book in front of me now – it’s gone back to the library) frustrate the reader in more or less the right way; what Polley aims for is a “have it both ways” ending that doesn’t push the material any further. I think the director (she also wrote the script) needed to go all the way with the husband’s betrayal of his wife. The movie stops with Grant’s discomfiture in the realization that Fiona (Christie) no longer remembers who Aubrey (the Murphy character) is. Grant, the very model of a self-righteous liberal, an over-sexed academic who screws his female students while expecting Fiona to remain faithful, (in other words, if ever there were an archetype that needed pummeling, he’s it) plans to abandon his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife as he goes off on a loveless tryst with another woman. Polley lets Grant off the hook in an unforgivably soft ending. She doesn’t indict him. The movie needs that extra scene of Fiona and Aubrey being given to each other, of being conveniently victimized by their loved ones, and if the film should have reached an unbearable emotional intensity or a tough-mindedness not unlike the last 90 seconds of Afterglow, then I feel sure that Christie (and Murphy as well) would have given us a finale that would burn its memory into our souls.

jindabyneCareer low-point: Laura Linney in Jindabyne (Sony Pictures Classics)

Away From Her, as unsatisfactory as it is, doesn’t begin to compare to the disgracefulness of another literary adaptation at PIFF. Raymond Carver would roll in his grave if he could see how his psychologically incisive short story, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” has been ground into simple-minded mush. His first-person narrative portrays a woman who identifies so strongly with a murder victim (the body has been found in a river by her husband and his fishing buddies) that it all but obliterates her marriage. First-time (and, let’s hope, last-time) screenwriter Beatrix Christian trashes Carver’s basic good sense in favor of soap opera clichés about “community” that are embarrassingly outmoded in their sleeve-worn political correctness. Christian makes the murdered girl an Aborigine, thereby setting the stage for all sorts of namby-pamby non-insights into race. The screenwriter has no ear for authentic speech (jokes about the Bee Gees in 2007?), but even if Jindabyne weren’t sabotaging Carver, the movie would still be a monstrosity on its own vapid terms.

And it’s essentially an exploitation picture in art-house drag, made by morons who either mistrust the strength of Carver’s material or are aggressively indifferent to it: a morgue attendant, white and female, suggests that the murder victim was “up for” being raped; a brick tossed through a van window narrowly misses an infant’s head; a filling station owned by whites has racial slurs spray-painted all over it; a pair of 7-year-olds obsessed with dead animals kill their school mascot, which, naturally in this debased scheme of things, happens to be a rodent; and so on. None of that crap, which would merit an F in any legitimate screenwriting course, is in Carver’s story. Miss Christian also takes the emphasis away from Claire, his lead character, and centers her absurd revisions on all the wives and girlfriends of the fishermen. Claire, as Carver envisioned her, might well have been a good role for Laura Linney, but Christian has reduced Claire to a nugatory non-entity who pirouettes around saying, “We’ve got to move on!” (It’s an even more insulting part than the one Linney had in Driving Lessons.) The narrative is no longer about the interior journey that one woman makes to the funeral of a stranger; that’s been replaced by lingering close-ups of the decomposing dead girl, wordless angst-ridden cries on the soundtrack (yes, I believe that is intended to be music), and by a self-congratulatory spread of so many smug liberal pieties that a single viewing of this bomb could turn a raving moderate into a staunch Republican in one shot. You need an example: Christian changes the lead male character’s occupation from an engineer to a car mechanic; evidently she felt he would be insufficiently blue-collar without her demotion of him. Why, merci beaucoup, my dear! Gabriel Byrne is a disaster in the role, anyway.

Before moving on to other fiascos, let me here slip in an endorsement for the movie I liked best at PIFF – Belle Toujours, Manoel de Oliveira’s homage to Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. I won’t say much as I have a piece being published about it in FLM closer to the film’s April release. It’s enough for now to recommend Toujours for the stunning Paris locations around which Bulle Ogier, gamely filling Deneuve’s high heels, dodges her old adversary Henri Husson. What a treat to see Michel Piccoli, reprising his role as Husson, as he waltzes through this dreamlike film with a sly, ever-present smile, knowing yet never revealing a lifetime of cherished private jokes – the opposite number of his boxed-in victim in Oliveira’s much inferior I’m Going Home.

February 23-26, 2007

kaneshiroTakeshi Kaneshiro in Perhaps Love (Photo courtesy of Applause Pictures)

Peter Chan’s tuneless musical Perhaps Love contrives a romance between an emotional cripple (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a narcissistic non-entity (Xun Zhou, as one-dimensional in this role as she was in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress). Dancers cavort around in elaborate circus outfits, gold-sequined chorus lines of young women pantomime beguilingly, but the choreography consists of frenzied messes for the most part; worse still, there isn’t a single memorable song anywhere on the soundtrack. Sample lyric: “Hating you was no salvation…let’s just end all our miseries.”

Perhaps Love benefits enormously from Kaneshiro’s fantastic leading man performance. Glowering handsome and soulfully sensitive, he’s as compelling here as in House of Flying Daggers; he’s much better than Chan’s material, which is bad melodrama glossed up in meta-fiction. The movie has great costumes, good lighting, and adequate (though far from his best) cinematography by Christopher Doyle, particularly in a press conference sequence as the constant click and flash of cameras fragments the screen seemingly to pieces. Yet the artistry with which the film is made offsets the monotony of the script only so much. What we’re left with is a love story we cannot believe in. And why can’t we believe in it? Because Xun Zhou, playing an actress named Sun Na, is so spoiled and petulant that no one would remain in love with her for terribly long, certainly not for the duration that Kaneshiro is required to obsess over her. There’s a scene toward the end in which they share a passionate kiss, as (and I admit that this is clever use of sound design) a cassette tape of his recorded rage (dating back a decade or so) accompanies their moment of reconciliation. The sight/sound contrast typifies what’s wrong with Perhaps Love – it’s all relentlessly one-note, too narrowly focused on the same thing (alienation effects) over and over.

I found an even more unconvincing portrayal of despairing relationships in the totally worthless Climates. To quote from my pan in Willamette Week: “A trash movie for art-house hangers-on, this risible drama of connubial crisis features horny, ugly adults desperate for unfortunate sex, and never before has ripped clothing seemed so dull. Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan stars as Isa, a sad, butch nightmare who claims to be ‘still working on my thesis,’ which perhaps offers a clue to his intellectually camouflaged arrested development. His art director wife, as much a cipher as her husband, snags the best dialogue: ‘Zafer? Don’t you have the Aga’s costume for today?’ I admired Ceylan’s previous film Distant, but Climates has no insight into a marriage’s disintegration or anything else.”

climates

It’s almost impossible to talk about what’s wrong with Climates without talking about (or at least to mention in passing) everything that is wrong in film criticism today. I enjoy long takes as much as the next viewer; I find it thrilling when a director has the confidence to park the camera and let us make our own discoveries in the frame. But there has to be something – a guiding intelligence, a point of view to be expressed – that emerges out of these leisurely visions. In Climates, it’s only emptiness on parade, devoid of any emotional content (Heaven forfend!) or discernment of anything beyond the immediate barrenness or sleaziness of the basic set-up. J. Hoberman and the usual cast of phonies were, predictably, all over Ceylan’s threadbare ode to grad students of all ages, elevating it to “10-best” status and so forth. The most obscene over-praise comes from a critic who shall remain nameless (I’ve picked on him too much already): “Climates will not be easy viewing for those who feel marooned in long-term partnerships, or maybe for any of us who have known the suddenness with which love can turn to revulsion. Of course, the same could be said of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage or Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon or Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, and Climates merits a place alongside them in any inventory of the screen’s wise and disquieting portraits of marital collapse.”

No, it doesn’t.

And any critic who would make such a farfetched comparison is A) pedantically showing off, and B) more interested in being a good politician than a critic. There’s genuine pain and violence in the Bergman, Parker, and Allen works, which are also extremely well acted and even entertaining in their own ways. Certainly, each one of those films (or miniseries) involves the viewer. And how do they do that? By daring to risk making us respond emotionally. And how does that happen? Through a combination of specificity and empathy. Thank God for Bloomberg.com’s Iain Millar, one of the very few critics capable of seeing Climates as the rag-doll it is and having the courage to attack the movie: “Little psychological motivation, other than a general dissatisfied malaise, is suggested…Whether Climates works for you probably depends on whether you believe that men and women have little chance of ever finding common ground for communication. If so, go, nod approvingly and take in the lovely scenery.”

avenuemontaigneCécile de France and Albert Dupontel in Avenue Montaigne (Photo: THINKFilm Company)

In general, the entertainment factor wasn’t a major element at this festival. I came across pleasure-for-its-own-sake in scarce quantities, the best example being Danièle Thompson’s unexpectedly delightful Avenue Montaigne. I say unexpected, as Thompson’s prior film, Jet Lag, was failed fluff. Avenue Montaigne, on the other hand, is good fluff: Impossibly French characters flit in and out of a Parisian café between rounds at an art auction, the theatre, and symphony hall; everyone pontificates philosophically on art and love, and all’s well that ends well. The bits of Beethoven and Liszt on the soundtrack are splendidly played, and the film offers us a chance to say goodbye, cinematically, to the late Suzanne Flon, who appears here in her last screen role. Flon, who only a few years ago gave a great lioness-in-winter performance in Chabrol’s The Flower of Evil, has the first words in Avenue Montaigne. She speaks off-screen, and her ravaged voice sounds as low and gruff as a man’s. Recalling her youth, Flon tells a cautionary tale to her granddaughter, who is about to leave their house in the country to try her hand in Paris, just as Flon had decades earlier. Beautifully genderless, Flon’s vocal textures and tones reminded me some of Stewart Stern singing a few lines from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” at the beginning of Going Through Splat, the granular sound of the voice seeming to stem from a 78 in the next world: a bittersweet admonition that our elders are not here for long, and we must treasure them while we may.

No such joy exists in Alain Resnais’ trashy Private Fears in Public Places, a loathsome debacle that, for some reason, was selected as PIFF’s closing night gala – possibly on the hunch that after sitting through this, a sane audience would refuse to sit through yet another bad film. “The low point,” as I wrote in WW, “occurs early – leading lady Sabine Azéma has tomato soup splattered all over her face – then the movie…almost reaches ‘good’ during a late-night conversation between a man and a woman seated across a kitchen table; Resnais uses snow dissolves throughout to elide from one scene to the next, but in this sequence the walls disappear. It snows inside as two strangers bare their souls.”

Beyond that, there’s a soupçon of nice sexual chemistry between Lambert Wilson, as an ex-military man, and Isabelle Carré, as a waif who wears a flower in her lapel, who meet via the personals. Their scenes in a hotel bar, in some frames, suggest a color parallel to the crisp, black-and-white tavern in Hiroshima Mon Amour. If only the movie had more of that and less of André Dussollier’s porn-obsessed old realtor. Dussollier appears to be Carré’s grandfather, though he’s cast as her brother, and his fits of lust over Azéma are positively revolting. – NPT

March 2, 2007

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