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Alice T., Too Late to Die Young and Four More From Locarno 2018

Too Late to Die Young

There was a bittersweet, valedictory quality to the 71st edition of the Locarno Film Festival. Over the past decade or so, Locarno has carved out a place for itself as a space for arthouse true believers, handing out top prizes to the likes of Lav Diaz and Wang Bing and seeing premieres of key films by Pedro Costa and Chantal Akerman, in the process becoming a byword for a certain kind of distinctly 21st-century, boundary blurring art cinema—to tweak the title of one of the festival’s main programs, filmmaking “of the present.” Recently, in both a validation of everything the festival has become and, potentially, a fundamental challenge to its identity, Locarno’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian was tapped to fill the same position at the bigger and more lushly funded Berlinale, with much of the festival’s leadership possibly set to follow suit. Understandably, this made for an atmosphere of uncertainty at this year’s iteration. Certain phrases kept popping up in conversation: “Depending on the next director…” or “Maybe in Berlin.” For the first-time visitor to the festival, this made for an odd, touching sensation of secondhand poignancy, like transferring to a new school right on the eve of graduation.

Some degree of unease also came from the programming itself, both from the content of individual films as well as the overall shape of the slate. That the international competition would be somewhat lopsided and ungainly was something of an inevitability given the presence of Mariano Llinás’ La Flor (more on this later), whose 14-hour runtime effectively laid claim to a quarter of the program (which stood this year at a deceptively svelte 15 films). Even so, the competition’s lineup was an odd one, lacking somewhat in the formal derring-do that has become the festival’s overseas trademark, and featuring a long succession of regionally-focused character studies, with a full third of its titles named for their heroines.

Of course, even within this category, there’s still a great deal of room for variation, and Locarno’s sundry character pieces ranged from the very good to the very bad, with ample ground for comparison. At the latter end of the spectrum was one of the festival’s bitterest disappointments, Alice T. from Romania’s Radu Muntean, whose Tuesday, After Christmas effectively adapted the realist aesthetics of the Romanian New Wave to a story of middle class infidelity and midlife indecision. The eponymous protagonist of Alice T. is a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant by an older lover and decides to make the most of her condition after her mother sees fit to take her out of high school for a year, even if she doesn’t necessarily intend on actually keeping the baby.

As if as a sort of corrective to Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which successfully gave a young woman’s attempt to find an abortion for her friend the urgency of a thriller, Alice T. features what must be among the most blasé abortion scenes in cinema, with Alice taking pills to miscarry and then hanging out in a friend’s home, awkwardly playing it cool when her friend’s dad shows up as if the two had just snuck a beer. This is how things go with Alice, who embodies the primary sin that elders have found in teens since time immemorial—e.g. that they’re incapable of taking anything seriously. She is defined by a sort of pathological flippancy, and if she does have any redeemable characteristics—a particular sensitivity, perhaps, or intelligence—Muntean’s camera is blind to them. Here she is trying to beat up an erstwhile friend for gossiping about her; there she goes sending unsolicited boob shots to an innocent guy several years her senior. Why does Alice do these things? Well, she’s adopted, a fact whose significance to the filmmakers is made amply clear by the way it’s strategically peppered throughout the screenplay (always with offhand mock-subtlety, for the sake of naturalism), and, presumably, “selfie culture.” Whatever one thinks of Muntean’s attempt to psychologically define a character he by all indication disdains, the answers he comes up with are distinctly underwhelming.  

The naturalism of Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young isn’t particularly more natural than that of Alice T., but instead of going for faux-observational moralism, Sotomayor (who took home the prize for Best Director) opts for a carefully stylized and, at points, euphoric lyricism. Set in a countercultural commune in rural Chile of the sort in which the director herself was raised, Too Late To Die Young is a summery coming-of-age tale centered around the experience of first love. It would be easy to attribute the success of Sotomayor’s handling of the story (and by extension, Muntean’s failure) to personal experience, but the difference between the two films provides a stark lesson in characterization as a matter of writing, directing and performance. Though by no means uncritical, the film imbues its adolescent protagonist, Sofía, played by androgynous, photogenic newcomer Demian Hernández, with desires and anxieties, abilities as well as limitations, and some measure of self-awareness–in short, an inner life. Still more impressive is the way that Sotomayor embeds her heroine’s story within a portrait of a broader community, alongside Lucas, an admirer her age, and her younger sister Clara, as well as a larger gallery of characters including an older paramour, her father and absentee mother, all of whom intermingle among the dusty, rugged landscape.

As a depiction of an enclosed society, Too Late To Die Young is focused much less on anthropology–we learn little of the reasons why commune’s inhabitants maintain their distance from the outside of society–than emotion. Through her characters’ interlocking stories, Sotomayor crafts an impressive roundelay of thwarted desire, which comes to a head in a long, musically driven party scene that precedes the film’s climax. Everyone appears to be chasing affection from a person from whom it will not be forthcoming, and alternately unable to show it to those who seek it from them, with even prepubescent Clara unable to satisfactorily secure the favor of a shaggy dog. The subject matter fits well with the expressive release of Sotomayor’s style, which overtly aestheticizes the material, using canted angles and dynamic figure movement to amplify emotional moments, occasionally moving into unapologetic virtuosity, as in an extended shot following a reflection captured in the window of a moving car. For all its charms, Too Late To Die Young is at times frustratingly beholden to the conventions of the coming-of-age film, its splendid party sequence followed by a climax that literalizes the film’s themes and feels at once overbearing and perfunctory. Still, it’s a greatly pleasurable work and a clear indication of a real talent.

Some of the most memorable films were found outside the main competition. Focusing on narrative innovation, the “Signs of Life” program productively juxtaposed features with shorts and mid-length works, and turned out one of the festival’s most entertaining movies in Benjamin Crotty’s Le Discours d’ acceptation glorieux de Nicolas Chauvin. The mouthful of a title, sometimes translated into English as The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin, belies the short’s witty, high concept premise: Chauvin, the famously zealous and likely fictional French soldier behind the term Chauvinism, delivers a speech upon receiving some vague award, giving him the occasion to recount his life and times with “My Way” bravado. An effectively heterodox work, Crotty’s film is gleefully anachronistic as well as cross-cultural. Finding comedy among castles and other trappings of olde Europe (given impressive tactility by Sean Price Williams’ 16mm cinematography), The Glorious Acceptance garnered inevitable comparisons to Monty Python, but expatriate Yank Crotty’s comic stylings are more rooted in the humor of his native USA, with Chauvin’s mixture of bitterness and self-aggrandizement coming off as something in the spirit of a Borscht Belt lifer. 

While Crotty’s previous film Fort Buchanan explored masculinity by jettisoning it off to the side, focusing on a community of military spouses often whose soldier hubbies are often absent, The Glorious Acceptance keeps it front and center throughout the film, embodied in the person of Chauvin, played by French actor Alexis Manenti less for any semblance of historical accuracy and more as the prototype of a certain kind of cocksure, distinctly Gallic Euro-bro. Apocryphal or not, Crotty posits Chauvin as one of history’s big winners: the names of Napoleon and Wellington now refer to foodstuffs, our hero boasts, but Chauvinism remains the order of the day. To this end, Crotty gleefully juxtaposes his hero against a taxonomy of the cultural accouterments of latter-day Chauvinism, from World Cup football (made all the more pointed by the recent glories of the French squad) to Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” in what’s certainly one of the festival’s funniest needle drops. Of course, there’s an element of political critique at play, and even as we laugh along with Chauvin’s comic foibles, we’re aware that his oblivious contemporary analogues are among the forces steering Europe back towards authoritarianism. 

From a movie about political correctness to an authentically politically incorrect work, The Kid From Spain, a highlight of the Leo McCarey retrospective, was one of the festival’s most interesting discoveries. Made in 1932, on the precipice of the director’s brilliant run through the thirties, which would see him direct such classics as Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap, Make Way for Tomorrow, The Awful Truth and Love Affair, The Kid From Spain is a star vehicle for bug-eyed comic and song-and-dance man Eddie Cantor. A faithful Irish Catholic, McCarey had a knack for working with Jewish comics, as exemplified by his films with the Marx brothers and silent comic Max Davidson, also given a showcase within McCarey’s retrospective, who specialized in put-upon Yiddish patriarchs with an impressive reservoir of physical gestures that all seem to exclaim, “Oy Vey!” Popular in his day but marginalized now, Cantor appears to be a fascinating figure in the annals of American comedy, coming off as an authentic antecedent to both the spasmic release of Jerry Lewis and the smartest kid in class wisecracks of Woody Allen. 

An agile joke machine that feels much shorter than its 90-minute runtime, The Kid From Spain is somewhat difficult to summarize, sending Cantor to Mexico through a series of contrivances that involve him getting expelled from college, unwitting made an accomplice on a bank robbery and finally made to impersonate the heir to a legendary bullfighter. McCarey’s gifts for handling extended comic sequences, honed while the director was working with Hal Roach, are on abundant display, notably in a long scene where Cantor’s ability to get across the boarder is jeopardized by a pathological inability to refrain from joking. Cantor matches McCarey’s legendary versatility, proving equally adept at physical and verbal comedy, with an arsenal of saucy songs to boot. A ribald ethnic comedy of the sort that would soon disappear from American screens, The Kid From Spain is something of an odd watch for contemporary viewers, bringing together in close quarters what is most desirable and most unwelcome from sound cinema’s adolescence. Thus, an uncomfortable blackface sequence is followed by the relief of a Busby Berkeley dance number before circling back to become a sort of dialectic synthesis between the two, including a genuinely appalling image giving racist iconography Berkeley’s trademark kaleidoscopic treatment. It is perhaps a credit to social progress that they don’t make ‘em like The Kid From Spain anymore, but McCarey and Cantor’s fleet-footed movie never stays still long enough to let itself become the object of any well-intentioned modern harangue.  

If The Kid From Spain is a film very much of its moment, Virgil Vernier’s Sophia Antipolis is a film of ours. Aptly situated in the festival’s “Filmmakers of the Present,” program, the film is Vernier’s follow up to his 2014 feature Mercuriales, with which it has a great deal in common, including a real fascination with impersonal structures such as business parks, hotels, utilitarian apartment blocks, and other such spaces of late capitalism, accompanied by a related preoccupation with nocturnal living. Mercuriales showed that Vernier had a real talent for shooting these overlooked places and a personal feel for the ennui of contemporary life, even if the film’s narrative couldn’t keep pace with its imagery. At its worst, the film’s aesthetics came off as somewhat affected, as if celebrating their own consummate post-modernity. With a structure in place to support its compositions, Sophia Antipolis represents a real step forward for the director.

The eponymous Sophia Antipolis is a technological business park outside of Nice, one of the many autonomous would-be Silicon Valleys scattered across the world, and around which the action of the film revolves. Shot by Simon Roca and Tom Harari in gorgeous 16mm, Sophia Antipolis reaffirms Vernier’s eye for landscapes, making palpable the power of the Mediterranean sun, amplified by human-driven climate change. As in Mercuriales, Vernier’s narrative is rather unmoored, drifting between largely unrelated figures, many of whom gravitate towards extreme responses to their own alienation, including a sort of doomsday cult and a vague right-wing paramilitary force. Vernier approaches these eschatological impulses with a crucial element of skepticism, however, and his film eventually coalesces around a smaller, more specific tragedy: the murder of a teenage girl and the brutal disposal of her body on Sophia Antipolis’s grounds. On the whole, the film makes for a very severe look at our society, but Vernier preserves some notes of hope in the actions of certain characters: a young man who opts out of the militia, or a young friend of the murder victim who resolves to maintain the memory of her friend. Largely overlooked by the media and the juries alike, Sophia Antipolis was nonetheless one of the festival’s most formally accomplished and morally committed films.

At 14 hours long, La Flor was almost a program unto itself, a sort of film festival within the film festival. Over ten years in the making, it’s a pathologically generous work, simultaneously a saintly gift to cinephiles and a somewhat sinister challenge to the hardcore, almost a kind of Monkey’s Paw scenario. “So you like films, eh?” one can imagine Argentine director Mariano Llinás saying to the passers by, trying to coax them into his new creation. It’s an impression reinforced from within the film, in which Llinás appears somewhat regularly to address the audience personally, making occasional reference to the sheer preponderance of his new movie with ironic faux-sympathy.

La Flor is a development of the style of Llinás’s previous film, Historias extraordinarias (2008), a series of largely non-overlapping, verbally driven stories, told through an interplay of voice over, often the dominant method of narrative exposition, and cinematic imagery. Yet while Historias extraordinarias was a decidedly masculine affair, La Flor is driven by its lead actresses, the heroic quartet of Pilar Gamoa, Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes and Valeria Correa. Serving as the common thread that unites the film’s six episodes, which share no common narrative through line, the performers exert a novel force missing from Llinás’s previous film, making for a second artistic center of gravity to counterbalance the pull of the director’s writerly authority, which makes it clear that the film’s reality will often be subject to its creator’s improvisational whims.

A self-conscious experiment in longness, Llinás approaches the form with a distinct idea of its possibilities. Chief among these is a paradoxical relationship between freedom and captivity: You’re stuck here, so you might as well let your imagination run wild. Llinás imperiously claims a great deal of license for himself, taking up stories at will, cutting them off at moments of climax no less readily than at moments of completion, and implicitly encouraging the viewer to do the same, offering up tantalizing mysteries to solve, avenues to pursue. Visually, his trademark move is the focus pull, reframing a shot to privilege the perspective of another character, another story that one could just as easily follow to the bitter end as ignore altogether.

There would be little purpose in trying to summarize even the basic narrative outline of La Flor, but certain of its achievements merit particular mention. The film’s second episode, a kind of musical centered around generic Latin pop music, is a lovely study in repetition, based on recapitulations of a single catchy if unremarkable break-up song that, over the course of a couple hours, is made to express everything that it possibly can. The five-plus-hour-long third, a spy story with a Russian nesting doll narrative structure, is a sort of genre film version of Historias extraordinarias, though while that film is set entirely within the same rural areas of the Bueños Aires province, this one takes place across multiple continents, and after so much investment, even fairly played out images of European cities (the Eiffel Tower! the Kremlin!) pack a genuine thrill. This is followed by a self-reflexive story featuring a Llinás stand-in played by Historias extraordinarias star Walter Jakob, who’s at work making a familiar sounding movie called La Araña (or, The Spider). Interrogating the overarching project itself, its story begins to stray from the actualities of the production, reaching something like truth only after passing through layer after layer of fiction. More than a meta comment on his own practice, it’s proof that Llinás has both the heart and the storytelling chops to back up his ambition. It might be an expression of similarly self-reflexive gallows humor that Llinás ends the film with a brief story of escape from captivity. The actresses, like the viewers, disperse into the expanse outside, liberated and in a sort of daze.

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