TIFF 2018 Critic’s Notebook 2: Our Time, Hidden Man, Ulysses and Mona
Our Time stars Carlos Reygadas and his wife Natalia López as Juan and Ester, a married couple whose definitely fictional open relationship in no way bears any resemblance to the performers. Even the TIFF write-up barely pretends to believe in this author-vs-character divide: “It’s fascinating when you realize that the director is effectively filming himself secretly watching his real wife’s affair.” Setting this aside (at least until someone asks Reygadas about it in an interview), the premise isn’t a huge change of pace: for all its Dreyer trappings, Silent Light is an adulterous love triangle, and Reygadas’s manic peak Post Tenebras Lux made one of its self-contained set pieces a visit to a swingers’ retreat. The man’s work is nothing if not sexually, let’s say, adventurous.
López edited Post Tenebras Lux (whose husband was also named Juan; the wife was Natalia), which Reygadas shot near his home in Morelos. Our Time appears to have been filmed there as well, because the watering holes, landscapes and livestock look familiar. The film builds on its predecessors in many ways; Lux opened with a startlingly gorgeous sequence tracking Reygadas’ then-very-young daughter Rut as she wanders a cow-grazing pasture, delightedly calling out “vacas” as the sky darkens and a thunderstorm eventually descends. Much of the Academy-ratio Lux had the frame’s edges smeared, and Time’s opening sequence amplifies both the family-bathes-outside sequence of Silent Light (in terms of upping both the number of people bathing and the length of the segment) and aforementioned smearing; sometimes Our Time‘s widescreen framings look like regular fisheye distortions at the edges, other times something like half the frame is gauzed over. Rut and other Reygadas children are again in the cast; this is a family affair.
Our Time is a love triangle between Juan, Ester and American horse breaker Phil (Phil Burgers); uncharitably but accurately described, it’s the story of a man who wants to have sex with other women, tells his wife it’s totally OK if she does the same and freaks out when she actually does. Whether the obvious machismo-inflected hypocrisy is clear to Reygadas is an open question, though I suspect not. I have a serious and admittedly unreasonable allergy to watching couples pursue the same repetitive-but-tonally-escalating fights over and over while both serially making the worst decisions possible, so when Time finally gets on with its plot I started getting irrationally annoyed. Reygadas’s Juan is a boor, who uses his wife’s failure to immediately disclose a liaison with Phil as an excuse to repeatedly needle her. He can’t just fight about honesty: he questions her tone, asks why she isn’t grateful when he offers her a day off, berates her inability to engage in the “example of civilized conversation” he’s set for her. It’s clear that no matter what answers she gives, Ester is always going to be wrong. These fights are dreary and long, like a much more grandiosely shot Scenes From a Marriage. By the time Juan goes full lunatic, entrapping his wife into sleeping with others while he spies on her through whatever window or closet space is available, I swung back around and started having more sympathy for the movie, as I do for most films that are extremely stupid in a way that’s unfakably honest and strange. Whether it’s supposed to be comic or not, watching Reygadas climb up a wall to hang in simian fashion outside a window is not far from Jerry Lewis-level mania and pathology. Nor was I unamused by the would-be-business-like emails sent between Juan and Phil (“Dear Juan, thank you for your call”), in which the former’s attempts to send what looks like a corporate memo (“Regarding”) breaks down at the point where Juan writes “Someone more manly would have said” (apropos of Ester sleeping with Phil) “‘I will consult with him first.'” The corporate-friendly vocabulary is right, but the context throws it all hilariously off. Again, to what extent any of this is intended as a comedy of nervous breakdown is unclear; given the length and gravity accorded the situation by film’s end, I’m skeptical.
Reygadas does throw in some comedy-of-bad-drunken-behavior moments and signature curveballs, my favorite of which is when he tosses the camera inside of an operating car engine and takes in the disorienting view to Genesis’s “The Carpet Crawlers”; much like the rationale for including Jacques Brel in Silent Light, I suspect it’s simply because he likes the song. But where Lux roamed through Reygadas’s entire life and unconscious, liberating itself in one weird scene after another, Our Time is confined to a very particular moment: whatever paintings, pieces of music or other allusions it brings in, the imaginative right to roam isn’t nearly as wide. It quickly started to feel like an inadequately whittled-down video diary (Reygadas is his own editor); after the screening, Blake Williams suggested that perhaps this is Reygadas’s attempt to make something like one, only transmuted through his available financial resources and the requirements that come with them. I’m inclined to believe Blake’s right, not least because of an insert shot of Juan keeping a diary that dates the start of events to a precise day in April 2017 (the illegibility of my notes won’t allow me to be more specific). But if that idea is interesting—to work from precise memories, transmuting them into art with a semi-significant budget—the execution is not.
What bothers me more than the film’s greatly-attenuated content is that, five features in, Reygadas appears to have settled on an aesthetic toolbox with a set number of shot possibilities. I absolutely do not mind directors building upon, while slightly tweaking each time, a very precisely confined aesthetic (I’m big on both Philippe Garrel and Hong Sang-soo, after all); the problem here is that Reygadas’s default shots all tend to loom, larger-than-life, regardless of the subject. Aspect ratio aside, there’s not much difference between the farm/cattle shots here and in Lux; that worked there, because the film has a number of genuinely stunning (or at least supremely startling) setpieces. This material is much more mundane, and to impose flare-streaked grandeur on every part of it—where even the pettiest husband-wife interaction takes place against an epic Steadicam shot traveling the earth as they walk together, or Juan standing outside his house and sulking before is filmed with the same magisterial dolly-in that began Silent Light—starts to feel pro forma, systematic in a way that doesn’t illuminate or complement the material. More bluntly, I was infuriated when it was all done. I’m sorry that the open marriage seems not to be working out, but I’m not entirely sure why it’s my problem. I may have a more frustrating viewing experience while here, but I certainly won’t have one that’s this annoying at such great length.
Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man follows up on his (at home) monster 2010 hit Let the Bullets Fly and 2014’s much more poorly received Gone with the Bullets, once again revising particular strains of popular Chinese period action filmmaking. The first Bullets was lavishly choreographed, with inventive CG mayhem not that far from Stephen Chow, and it certainly lived up to the title; its successor was rhythmically sludgy and difficult to follow for both foreign and Chinese viewers alike. Hidden Man is a streamlined breeze in comparison: if it never hits the first film’s highs, it’s clean and easy to track throughout. The plot is a simple quest-for-revenge, set against the backdrop of 1937 China. Jiang (whose 2000 international breakthrough Devils on the Doorstep was banned at home) is far from being naturally an entertainer aiming for the uncomplicated, but Hidden Man puts on his straightest face yet.
Some jokes are more in line with official party talking points than I’d expect: hero Li Tianran (Eddie Peng) is a Chinese-born, American-trained doctor who returns home. There’s been a recent emphasis in Chinese films encouraging doctors to train in the US, then return home and work for lower pay to provide medical services for their countrypeople. I’m not going to say the film’s stance on this is as cynical as that of Wu Jing’s recent mega-hit Wolf Warrior 2 (in which messaging about that sits alongside bluntly nationalist imagery like its hero literally wrapping himself in the Chinese flag at the climax), but it seems like a straightforward enough alignment. Then again, with Jiang and my lack of expertise in the intricacies of contemporary Chinese politics, I’d hate to guess further about what’s going on ideologically inside of this movie, if anything. When an American rudely waves his passport to get an occupying Japanese officer to leave him alone, is he being a “foreign asshole” (as our hero characterizes all white people who live in China) or are anti-American sentiments temporarily being set aside in favor of a reactionary anti-Japanese focus? That would be the opposite of the plot of Devils, in which Chinese soldiers and Japanese prisoners had more in common than not, but I have absolutely no clue.
The Bullets films and Hidden Man are set in different times and places; Jiang himself is one of the only constants. Here he’s once again playing a cigar-chomping blowhard whose seemingly simple-mindded gruffness of manner marks a deep reserve of cunning and, as needed, strategically directed cruelty, and he remains great fun to watch. I wish there were more hand-to-hand combat: Wen’s background isn’t in martial arts, but he’s ace at filming the rare such sequence he allows himself. Man‘s grace notes are its best: there’s a lot of Peng running up and down rooftops—not for wireworks combat, just for the fun of it. (In one early sequence, extras fleeing a room have to jump over a janitor unhurriedly plying his mop, a fun bit of at-the-fringes choreography that’s a bit of a flashback.) Gone had a convoluted plot in which its quasi-hero lived long enough to see his story become bandit legend and, finally a film; here there are more meta-emphases one film culture (a critic yells “Can’t I say it’s shit without watching it?,” which some days is definitely the dream). The rude comedy isn’t a problem, the time-killing speeches about courage, honor etc. are; there is a serious loss of momentum before the rousing but too-brief final face-off. I am nonetheless heartened to see Jiang’s hyperactive approach to genre revisionism (if that’s what it is) stay the course.
I’ve penciled in some dark-horse world premieres on my schedule, based mostly on guesswork and clips online. I liked Sébastien Betbeder’s 2 Autumns 3 Winters to give his newest, Ulysses & Mona, a chance. I don’t have specific enough memories to expand on Winters more precisely than what I wrote at the time, when I described it as “slight if effectively melancholy.” Same, if perhaps less so on the effective front, for Ulysses: the title character (Eric Cantona!) is an artist who long ago walked away from his family members, and is now without a home (spiritually, not physically; his manor, described as decrepit, seems rather nice). There is a minor road trip of potential reunions instigated by Mona (Manal Issa), an art student who wants to be his assistant, and things go about as you’d expect. It’s hard to hate any film including a dream sequence in which a Speedo-clad Cantona confronts his double, for the primary purpose of urging him to watch the 1969 film The Swimmer (he doesn’t mention director Frank Perry by name, but the cut’s deep enough I bet Betbeder is a fan); the end credits also cite Diderot and Hubert Robard as reference points. A few unexpected scenes aside (a would-be gas station robbery turned bonding moment between perpetrator and clerk; an actually moving, Frenchly blunt reunion between Ulysses and his ex-wife that’s not stock at all), this is a movie whose primary virtues are a) not overplaying its emotional hand at any time, which is too rare b) generally being pleasant c) it’s only 82 minutes long d) color correction that’s heavy on rich reds and blues without looking processed to death e) Betbeder using the 1.33 aspect ratio casually, just because it looks good for the kinds of shots he wants to do, rather than to refer back to classic cinema or (as is more often the case currently) to automatically confer portent on his work. He’s very relaxed about that particular, and it’s literally/figuratively a great look.