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Locarno 2023: Circles of Reference

People vibe in Eduardo Williams's The Human Surge 3.The Human Surge 3

Festivals have a baked-in tension between the works they’re meant to showcase—marginal relative to the marketplace, hence the (sometimes pejorative) descriptor “festival film”—and the sponsorships necessary for them to operate, the larger and more corporate the better. Cracks will inevitably emerge; thus, attending Locarno with his latest, The Old Oak, socialist Ken Loach spent part of his press conference dutifully denouncing sponsors UBS Bank, prompting two Swiss journalists sitting next to an attending friend to draw their breath sharply in protest: “UBS is an ethical bank.” Another tension is between the ideal of a “festival film”—work at the boundaries of what’s previously been understood as possible—and the closely copied iterations operating within a small circle of influences that are often the reality instead. At my first-ever Locarno, I found myself thinking through frames of reference more than I would have hoped.

My most-anticipated title was Eduardo Williams’s second feature, The Human Surge 3; he’s been a progressive filmmaker slightly ahead of our moment since his 2011 short Could See a Puma, a rare recent example of what The Future could look like. Williams’s best work generates spectacle via lo-fi conceptual audacity, often abetted by early-adopter technological virtuosity and compacted into sprint-size bursts, a description covering both his best shorts and first feature, 2016’s The Human Surge, which plays like three shorts sown together. What’s new about The Human Surge 3 isn’t a technological element but that it’s all of a uniform piece; instead of traveling across three countries in discrete, successive segments as he did in the first Surge, Williams scrambles them together, with scenes and characters sliding unpredictably between Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Peru. When people from one location find themselves in another for no apparent reason, their discombobulation mirrors that of viewers’—I couldn’t help repeatedly laughing at the number of times “I don’t know” or “I’m confused” was spoken. One line offers the closest thing the film might have to an cleanly articulable project: “I want to see maps of different regions and listen to the crazy dreams of my friends.” 

As with 2018’s Parsi, Williams shot on a 360-degree VR rig, then chose the final frames in post. Gaps between the camera’s 11 lenses create intriguing smears of light in far-off forests and distortions running down or around people’s faces, but these images are a fringe benefit rather than the primary goal, which is to record cool people supremely vibing, largely captured at lackadaisical walking speed—Williams performs his first kinetic intervention 90 minutes in via a spinning camera movement that transforms the sky into a kaleidoscope, then it’s back to even more unhurried strolling. One person I talked to proposed an intriguing reading where The Human Surge 3 is a recipient of the Hubert Bals Fund which subverts expectations associated with that grant by its critics—i.e., films set in the “developing world,” often made by outsiders featuring imperiled children, a heavy emphasis on sociopolitical issues and animal slaughter. That’s a very specialized context, even if the Bals factor as such isn’t so important—arthouse films set in the “developing world” that don’t emphasize poverty and dispossession are generally swimming upstream.

The title, of course, requires that every review include a note stating that there is no The Human Surge 2. In the press kit, Williams offers some theoretical framing for why he chose to skip ahead numerically (“The number after the title also questions the idea of the first film, where it seems there was one human surge, now we know there’s many and some of them are unknown yet, as the 2nd part remains unknown”) without mentioning the obvious: that this is a way to control at least one sentence of every review, and that the idea of a Human Surge franchise is very funny. The expansion of a previous technical experiment means that this is, at least to my mind, Williams’s first film recapitulating prior work rather than discovering new modes, but to be fair, Surge 3 is unsurprising primarily in relation to his own self-created universe.

This year’s Golden Leopard winner, Ali Ahmadzadeh’s Critical Zone, has a relationship to precedent that seems both aware of the inevitable comparison points and eager to position itself tonally and formally against them; the film’s single-sentence synopsis—a drama about a man driving around Tehran—inevitably conjures up Abbas Kiarostami’s car-based works. The English-language credits signal that this is primarily for viewers outside Iran, a status almost certainly less actively desired than politically unavoidable: made without official authorization, Critical Zone presents a nighttime Tehran full of drug users and sex workers, a depiction that obviously wouldn’t fly with the ruling powers. Ahmadzadeh was pressured to pull the film, then banned from leaving the country to attend the premiere; the “Iranian film presented as an act of protest in the absence of its filmmaker” is, grimly but definitely, a recognizable sub-genre by now.

Refusing to incorporate respectability politics as a component of dissent, Critical Zone tracks an extremely-pissed-off-looking drug dealer, Amir (Amir Pousti), who spends much of the movie in his car, smoking a stunning quantity of hash joints and berating customers for smoking too much weed (hashish > marijuana, he keeps insisting). His driving is captured from angles that don’t recycle Kiarostami’s signature angles, instead finding new dashboard vantage points and sometimes upping the ante by e.g. strapping a GoPro to the steering wheel and speeding up the queasily kinetic results. Episodic encounters include one with one of Amir’s suppliers, a stewardess who summarizes the film’s diagnosis of contemporary society when describing how her plane ran out of gas and pilots had to beg with Russian authorities to be allowed to land and fuel up—a process, she notes, that was “nothing but disgrace, humiliation and bullshit.” (Big 2023 mood, one also at play in Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World; Leonardo Goi interviewed the filmmaker here.) The film is simultaneously severe and funny and its sins are venial (mostly the barely color-corrected palette, rendering almost everything brown and unappealing to no real end). I laughed when the stewardess presents Amir with a present she’s brought from the outside world—you’ve never seen somebody so excited to drink a single Tuborg in an act functioning both as political defiance and a genuine desire to get fucked up.

The lineup included the premiere of Bonjour la langue, the final feature by the late Paul Vecchiali, whose work I’d never seen. Aware I should generally have a little familiarity with this cultishly beloved filmmaker, I used my pre-fest prep time to watch one of his best-known titles, 1974’s Femmes femmes. That work is explicitly cinephilic in its subject and setting—the two main characters are actresses who live in an apartment decorated with postcards of studio-system stars—as well as its overall project of generating constant tonal instability. Over-viewed cinephiles crave the unexpected and I fetishize novelty just as much as anyone, so while Femmes femmes wasn’t exactly my thing, it was so irritating in its originality, making the two qualities inextricable, that I had no choice but to respect it.

Bonjour la langue partially reckons with Jean-Luc Godard who, a year after his death, is not close to being done with us. The title is both a gloss on Goodbye to Language and a surprisingly accurate synopsis of the film’s contents: a 75-minute conversation (Animaniacs voice: “Helloooooo, language!”) between a long-estranged father (Vecchiali) and his son Jean-Luc (Pascal Cervo) sporadically broken up by a minimal third character, a waiter played by Vecchiali’s AD Julien Lucq. As a Cahiers cinephile, it’s not surprising that Vecchiali’s final film is very much a self-conscious exercise in Late Style, in which aging filmmakers exercise their right to be as magisterial and slow as they like. Bonjour is self-reflexive in interrogating that mode’s value: “Here you are, the wise man, sitting in his chair,” Jean-Luc contemptuously tells his father, a former pain in the ass—mistresses, emotional abrasiveness, the whole bit—who wants uncomplicated love in his wheelchair-bound infirmity. The two face off for 35 minutes in the father’s front yard before dad invites his child to lunch, where he complains about pain and aging; “You’re not going to talk about your age the whole meal, I hope,” Jean-Luc pitilessly replies.

Late Style promises both a straightforward, end-of-days poignance and a certain perverse narrative stasis; the latter quality can seem like the synthesis of involuntary metabolic slowing and deliberately chosen modernism. The severity of a film that’s almost exclusively unemphatic medium shots and close-ups is diluted to the slightest degree by the aforementioned waiter and flashbacks repurposed from 2016’s Le cancre that show a much more ambulatory Vecchiali. None of this has much to explicitly do with Godard, whose work only got more obdurately opaque in entirely different ways, aside from two instances. The first is a father-son exchange that includes a series of allusions to the titles of his films, while the last comes in the end credits when Vecchiali reverently takes off his hat as the titles dedicate the film to Godard. Each letter is then removed from his name until all that remains of “Jean-Luc Godard” is “End”—both of this film and its master. The result is, as I desired, both perversely admirable and interminable.

The slender American feature selections improbably included two features from Texas. Introducing Bob Byington’s Lousy Carter alongside the writer-director, star David Krumholtz preemptively noted that while the film was shot and is set there, “Whatever you think of Texas, its politics have nothing to do with the film.” The disclaimer is accurate—this is another of Byington’s immaculately mean comedies with an underlying sentimental streak, a blend he’s been iterating with various degrees of sharpness for a few decades now in Texan settings that are slightly anonymous and essentially irrelevant. Given six months to live at the film’s beginning, Krumholtz’s morosely nicknamed title character is a lo-fi animator who peaked early and now teaches a graduate seminar on The Great Gatsby. Imminent mortality isn’t ennobling—instead, the long-time sober man dabbles with drinking again and desultorily contemplates sleeping with one of his students. Enacted by frequent regular collaborators—Krumholtz and, as his best friend, Martin Starr are returning company members, as are Stephen Root and Andrew Bujalski in smaller parts—Byington’s reconfigurations of misanthropy and mournfulness are a flavor combination that’s to my taste. As in his Harmony and Me, funerals are a good place to exhibit both, serving as an excuse for people to say mean things about the deceased, as when Carter observes of his mom that “She made me who I am: emotionally unavailable but someone who appreciates good books.” My notes are almost solely transcripts of similarly quotable lines (“Your immaturity and moral failings don’t diminish your attractiveness, which I suppose is what matters to you”) and the observation that Starr finally looks middle-aged.

Boasting a less (overtly) antagonistic relationship to family, Lucy Kerr’s Family Portrait stars Deragh Campbell as, once again, anxiety in human form. On a stressful morning, Campbell runs around her Texas clan’s house trying to round up all members so they can take the titular photo, a task that’s hard enough given the number of relatives to corral even before her mother seems to disappear. That’s about it for plot, with Kerr ratcheting up ambient unease via a restlessly pacing Steadicam that keeps tabs on Campbell and an excellent sound mix in which overlapping conversations are occasionally drowned out, partially or wholly, by droning tones. Lightly droning soundtracks have been overly fashionable for a while now, but Family Portrait’s sound (credited to Nikolay Antonov and Andrew Siedenberg) is a cut above, inchoately menacing and textured instead of being aspirationally applied to elevate lackluster scenes. The Texas of it all is considerable, especially as modeled by Katy’s dad (Robert Salas), who toggles from endearingly warm patriarch to unpleasantly self-righteous libertarian, and the setting—a small house in the scrubby countryside whose walls are covered in cattle horns and whose bookshelves contain two copies of Barbara Bush’s memoirs. Exhibiting compositional poise both in its static and moving shots, Family Portrait attempts a leap from the mildly inexplicable to the fully oneiric in its final section. The gear shift doesn’t come off, but the impulse is laudable. 

Winner of this year’s Swatch First Feature Award, Nelson Yeo’s Dreaming & Dying triangulates itself against Hong Sang-soo and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Their influences are perceptible via immediately recognizable stigmata, like the opening titles dropping at 27 minutes—even if shy of the 45 minutes of Blissfully Your‘s precedent, comically late opening credits are by now another festival tic springing from a single source. (Yeo’s short Mary, Mary So Contrary interweaves his footage with material from 1948’s Springtime in a Small Town, so clearly influence isn’t an anxiety but an explicit starting point for him.) The pre-credits act recontextualizes Hongian tropes at a class reunion weekend where only three people are present: a fractious couple—an unhappy wife (Doreen Toh), her boorish husband (Kelvin Ho)—and Heng (Peter You), friends with both from way back. Other Hongian elements are both structural—characters repeat the same dialogue in different contexts to different people, thereby producing different moral outcomes—and visual, with lots of unabashed zooms that readjust the character dynamics throughout extended single-shot scenes. Hong’s mature mode from 2004 on had him removing a great many tones from his palette of possibilities, so Dreaming & Dying is most interesting as an exercise in seeing his methods brought to bear upon unfamiliar material (in this case, a potentially sexy middle-aged poolside love triangle). 

The film grows less productive in its Apichatpongian stretch—a long forest walk, the increasing presence of heard but unseen talking animals, a merman a la Uncle Boonmee’s catfish princess. Maybe this is because Apichatpong’s work is already intensely stylized; overtly ramping up its strangeness is clumsily gilding the lily, while the grunting foley sounds of animals, rather than deriving from local mythology, redundantly underline an explicitly articulated concern about global warming. (“Literal-minded Apichatpong” is not something anyone needs.) Much more promisingly, just over an hour into this 77-minute film, is a brief section I can only describe as “Wong Kar-wai directs a nature series about fish with a sub-prosumer cameraphone”—i.e., something so original that I’m using reference points to try to approximate it for myself instead of definitively cataloging its constituent parts. It’s rare to drop a new aesthetic so late into a film, a gesture that restored a lot of goodwill I’d lost by that point. Looking at Letterboxd reviews, I was struck by one written by a fellow Singaporean filmmaker: “the locations in this film are so funny because i (and I’m quite sure a few others) filmed there too – *that* tunnel, clementi forest, the finger statue at changi, haw par villa, etc. it’s almost like a singaporean filmmaker rite of passage HAHAHAHA. i guess that’s what happens when the country you live in is very small and has a lack of surreal locations lol.” It’s a good point and one that also serves as a metaphor for arthouse films working from a tiny group of starting points as familiar to their makers as they are to their target audiences.

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