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Rotterdam 2024 Critic’s Notebook: A Spoiling Rain, The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire, Under a Blue Sun and 102 Narra

The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire

The International Film Festival Rotterdam has always been something of a grab bag. This year, at the 53rd edition, the Dutch festival showed 424 films across its various programmes — a reduction from past years due to widespread budget cuts. Still, 424 films (including 183 world premieres) is a mammoth undertaking for any one film critic at a major festival lacking an intuitive method of whittling down a schedule. This is especially true for international press less interested in the trickle-down from Cannes or Venice — Agniezka Holland’s audience award-winner Green Border, Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast, and Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera were all hot tickets among locals; as well as those who, like myself, are still trying to make sense of the programming identity of each section (this is particularly an issue in the massive Harbor section). In any case, Rotterdam is a festival where I prefer the danger of blindly following my nose. With numbers comes an uneven but pleasantly idiosyncratic selection of films, so IFFR tends to warrant disparate reads from its individual attendees. This frustrates attempts to make an overarching statement about the quality of the festival, as a whole, but it’s also part of what gives it its charm. That said, these are my highlights: three features and a short, all unawarded.

Haruhiko Arai, age 77, is a veteran in the Japanese film industry, though he’s better known as a screenwriter (for films by Shinji Aoyama, Junji Sakamoto, etc.) than a director. His third film, A Spoiling Rain, is a depressed-dudes talkie in the vein of Hong Sang-soo — lots of throwing back drinks, hard confessions, and relationship what-ifs, though Haruhiko’s fixed frames are adjusted for the occasional tatami shot. The film is a meaty melodrama, laced with irony, that jumps back and forth in time as it plumbs questions about sex, performance, and Japanese gender relations, all anchored to bohemian types that work in the declining adult, or “pink” film, industry. Male doom-and-gloom is the prevailing mood, and Haruhiko is attuned to this tenor’s latent absurdity. It begins with Kutani, an underemployed porn director, as he tries to attend the funeral of one of his former actresses, only to be kicked out by her traditionalist parents. Soon, we learn the deceased actress — who died by mysterious murder-suicide, or maybe double-suicide, next to one of Kutani’s director pals — was Kutani’s lover, though their relationship had fizzled out. Broke, Kutani accepts a job from his landlord that requires him to kick out another tenant, a smoothtalking screenwriter who easily coaxes Kutani into having a few drinks, instead. Present-day scenes are shot in black-and-white; flashbacks, in color (so fashionable, these days, this subversion!). The men trade stories about their lost loves, reflecting on their miserable, macho behavior as memories of apartment life with their long-gone ladies materialize. Several prolonged sex scenes (gleefully pornographic, though without the cum shots) capture the evolving nature of these relationships. If there’s something male-gazey about the explicit approach to love and lust, the sex scenes are too complex, too specific, to be brushed off as mere spicy touches; they’re more expressive of the mens’ vulnerabilities than their drunken chatter. 

The truth-telling powers of gesture and physical movement make up Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s anti-biopic The Ballad of Suzanne Césaire. Hagiography (sometimes with obligatory pinches of ambiguity or unlikeability to ground the subject in question) is practically synonymous with the commercial biopic, which Hunt-Ehrlich seems to take as her contrasting point of departure. The historical memory of Suzanne Césaire, a Martinique-born writer and key member of the Négritude movement, is often eclipsed by that of her ex-husband, the thinker and politician Aimé Césaire. Wanting to illuminate the life of this Black feminist pioneer without succumbing to the goddess-worship simplifications of the biopic, Hunt-Ehrlich assembles a series of minimalistic tableux in which actors, namely those portraying Suzanne and Aimé, build out scenes corresponding to the early years of Césaire’s life. A narrator reads political texts by Césaire in voiceover as these scenes, physically expressive yet mostly silent, play out upon quivering tropical backdrops, evoking the feel of Césaire’s early life, and her romantic partnerships, without pinning them down to narrativized facts. Conceptually justified, if somewhat cliché among docufictional hybrids of this ilk, the film eventually breaks the dramatic illusion by calling attention to the process of filming itself — we hear behind-the-scenes conversations; film equipment punctures the frame. This layer calls attention to the work of apprehending a person; with the choices made in the effort to portray always somehow insufficient. If there’s something too self-conscious about this aspect of the film, brisk interludes of natural serenity somewhat put this stiff quality into relief. 

The Israel/Palestine conflict is the long-game subject of Daniel Mann’s Under a Blue Sun, but the filmmaker takes an intriguing backdoor approach by way of Rambo III, which was shot in the Negev desert. Stallone heads know that the 1987 film takes as its fictional location the hills of Afghanistan, with Rambo playing freedom fighter, aligned with the Mujahideen, against a Soviet invasion. On the one hand, Under a Blue Sun, which features archival footage and present-day interviews with locals who worked on the production (namely practical effects guru, Bashir, a Palestinian Bedouin), is about the absurdities of American militarism as manifested through its most spectacular arm of propaganda, the movies. Rambo, a blueprint for retrograde standards of chest-puffing masculinity, is an easy target, but Mann creates an intriguing cultural history by taking on the half-amused, half-bewildered perspective of the locals, active participants themselves in the charade staged by the action film. Less successful are the moments when Mann himself reads aloud letters he supposedly wrote to Stallone that interrogate his relationship to the region — these accusations are warranted, but I’m not sure they impart the vast revelations about actorly ignorance that the filmmaker thinks they do. Scenes from Rambo III, the color dialed down to a mild translucency, play within a wider frame that shows the dessert setting as it appears today. These visuals speak to how the film does succeed, weaving fantasy and history together within a tapestry that illuminates the relationships between these (often alarmingly indistinguishable) layers.

102 Narra, a 22-minute film by the directing duo Rafael Manuel and Tatjana Fanny Honegger, unfolds over one morning, afternoon, and evening. It captures the goings-on of one household in a luxury neighborhood in Manila — the community, as was suggested by the filmmakers’ brief intro, is home to Manuel’s family. We see a child playing video games as a mother exercises on a stationary bike in the courtyard; the help (each of several employees is beckoned with the anonymous catch-all “girlie”) tends to the bratty kid, the tiny dogs, etc., as the old-gen masters-of-the-house eat their meals in silence and show off real-estate to prospective buyers in thousand-dollar streetwear threads. That’s only a sliver of what we see — seemingly nothing remarkable, yet greatly absorbing. In some respects, it’s a standard formalist documentary-portrait — though it’s a cut above the rest for its balance of observational humor and critique; each handsome composition both seemingly effortless and brimming with smart details. 


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