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Right Then, Right Now: The Locarno Film Festival 2015

Right Now, Wrong Then

Considering last year’s Locarno Film Festival presented what turned out to be some of the best films of 2014 – Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before, Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, Martín Rejtman’s Two Shots Fired and Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France – artistic director Carlo Chatrian had a lot to live up to in his third year of tenure. Unbelievably, when the program of the festival’s 68th edition was announced, the main competition featured an even more impressive selection of auteurs. Though the extremely high expectations weren’t quite met, it was nevertheless an excellent year, and for every disappointment amongst the premieres, there was plenty of solace to be found in the incredible selection of older films. These were almost all screened in celluloid, with the highlights being the full Sam Peckinpah retrospective and six features by the unsung Soviet master Marlen Khutsiev. Judging from the enraptured reactions from all those who attended the latter, Khutsiev won’t remain unsung for long.

The festival’s highest honor, the Golden Leopard, went to Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, far and away the best film in the main competition. I must admit that I have generally been baffled by the lavish praise heaped upon each successive Hong film, as none of the ones I’d seen ever impressed me as the understated works of genius so many hail them to be (especially considering that some of his most enthusiastic admirers are critics I hold in high esteem). Well, at long last, I’ve taken the road to Damascus: Hong’s latest is a bona fide work of genius. It’s not that he’s finally ventured into new territory. On the contrary: depicting the incipient romance between a middle-aged film director and an attractive young painter, Right Now, Wrong Then is comprised of a series of lengthy naturalistic conversations invigorated by copious soju and captured in a restrained and precise mise-en-scène occasionally punctured by conspicuous zooms – in short, it’s a Hong film through and through. 

Right Now, Wrong Then is evenly split in half; at the one-hour mark, once the director’s dishonesty spoils the brief courtship, the narrative starts anew, giving him another chance. The first and second parts are differentiated through minor departures in shot sequence, framing and dialogue, so that the whole feels like a cross between Groundhog Day and Syndromes and a Century. As a structural experiment in repetition it’s far more compelling than Hong’s tripartite In Another Country. Here, the slight differences between the two halves create drastic changes in tone. Though ill-fated, the first is characteristically light-hearted and hilarious, whereas the second is marked by genuine and escalating pathos. Together, they offer both a meta-reflection on the subtleties of filmmaking and a modest, trenchant meditation on the human condition.

With Winter Song, Otar Iosselliani also presented a film that was very recognizably his, albeit one that failed to live up to some of its best predecessors. Winter Song starts with two intriguing preludes. In the first, set in Revolutionary France, a nobleman stubbornly refuses to stop smoking his pipe as he’s guillotined; the second, which is much longer and free of dialogue, takes place in the midst of an unidentified modern-day war in what is presumably Georgia (the director’s native country), where soldiers killing one another as well as pillaging and raping civilians is portrayed with Iosselliani’s customarily droll casualness. Thereafter, the film relocates to a Parisian neighborhood, depicting the inhabitants engaging in various shenanigans: teenagers forming an organized gang of roller-skating pickpockets, a man selling military weapons in exchange for antique books, the chief of police pathologically spying on his neighbors via telescope, and so forth.

The cast of characters, all of whom are in some way interconnected, is so large that their individual stories essentially constitute a string of vignettes, sometimes stitched together à la Phantom of Liberty, other times more arbitrarily. Brimming with absurd and surreal humor – for example, a vagrant is run over by a steam-roller and flattened into a pancake – these segments are often very funny, but the film’s structure is too flimsy for its many parts to add up to a satisfyingly cohesive whole. Other than a moving friendship between two elderly men, little of substance emerges from Winter Song’s societal ballet. When it draws to a close on a shot of a busy street, anonymous cars entering and leaving the frame, the resultant “life goes on” message doesn’t inspire much more than a smile and a shrug.

Conversely, Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos, his first feature in 15 years and the recipient of the award for best direction, is positively assaultive. In adapting Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel, Żuławski wasn’t slavishly faithful to the source material. Rather, he retained its narrative premise and epistemological playfulness while changing the ending, moving the action to the present (though with plenty of anachronisms) and throwing in a slew of new references, both meta and textual, the latter including Tolstoy, Sartre, Ophüls, Pasolini and Star Wars.

The plot involves a university student and his friend staying at a family-run boarding house and playing detective by following clues that they’ve most likely made up (a hung sparrow; a smudge on the ceiling that sort of looks like an arrow; a rake that may or may not have been purposely placed to point them in a specific direction). Since the detective storyline is largely farcical and doesn’t lead anywhere, Żuławski’s attempt at a cinematic rendition of Gombrowicz’s distinctive prose is the film’s most engaging and remarkable aspect. Unfortunately, it’s also what renders it an increasingly unpleasant watch.

The novel is mostly composed of the student’s interior monologues, written in a feverish style that approaches stream of consciousness and simulates the character’s flights of fancy by listing images, sounds and other stimuli to construct cognitive parallels and juxtapositions. In the film, the frenetic pace is recreated through constant camera movement, ugly zooms, rapid editing and ever more hysterical performances from the entire cast. Grimacing, bug-eyed and spluttering, the actors are continuously screaming at one another and communicating their characters’ inner thoughts by speaking them aloud, breaking the fourth wall or typing them on a computer (the text displayed in ludicrously gigantic font across the screen). At length, it becomes impossible to keep up and the viewer is left stranded in a maelstrom of abstract madness. Cosmos is an audacious and to a certain extent fascinating mess, but not one I care to revisit anytime soon.

Though far from a favorite at the festival, Żuławski’s film nevertheless had its champions, with several critics proclaiming it a masterpiece. Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, which for me came a lot closer to deserving such distinction, was much less warmly received. In her extremely succinct introduction for its public premiere, a teary-eyed Akerman asked the audience for “patience and an open mind.” However, judging from the large number of walkouts in its first hour (as well as the reported boos at the earlier press screening), the film proved too personal for many.

No Home Movie consists almost entirely of videos the director shot of her mother at home during the final years of her life. Filmed with a portable digital camera, the images are formally rigorous though for the most part unexceptional and their content is largely limited to casual conversations and reminiscences between mother and daughter. We do learn some biographical facts, e.g. about the mother’s escape from Poland to Belgium in the 1930s and her years in Auschwitz, but the film is uninterested in compiling a comprehensive portrait. What manifests most clearly is the profound love that binds the two women and the enormous debt that Akerman, who was born in 1950, has carried her entire life due to her mother’s suffering. While the latter never expresses any rancor in her recollections of persecution, Akerman does, violently, impelled by a duty to compensate.

Their exchanges are separated by lengthy stationary shots of empty rooms in her mother’s apartment in which she can be heard walking around somewhere beyond the frame. In three or four instances the film relocates to a desert, presumably in Israel, showing footage of the barren and empty landscape. At first puzzling, these interludes gradually emerge as potent complements, inviting reflections on themes of loss, absence and the Jewish diaspora. No Home Movie, which runs at almost two hours, certainly requires a specific sensibility to be appreciated and it’s almost surprising that Akerman would want to share such an intimate work with an audience. Those thus inclined, however, are rewarded with a beautiful and thoroughly stirring document of filial love.

One of the festival’s most eagerly anticipated titles was Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, her first feature since the phenomenal Attenberg in 2010. Co-written with Efthymis Filippou, who also shares writing credit on all Yorgos Lanthimos’ features from Dogtooth onwards, Chevalier depicts six men vacationing on a yacht and playing a vaguely defined game of their own invention called “The Best at Everything in General.” The allegorical thrust of a group of wealthy (Greek) men removed from society and engaging in silly contests of one-upmanship, which range from comparing erections to building IKEA shelves, is established early on. Benefiting from an excellent cast and Tsangari and Filippou’s knack for absurdist deadpan humor, it’s an engaging premise that doesn’t fully hold up when stretched over a feature running time. In terms of narrative and characters, there is hardly any progression. While this could very well be a comment about the permanence of the status quo, as a viewing experience it translates to watching a succession of preposterous scenarios with diminishing returns and an unsatisfying pay-off.

This wasn’t the case with Ben Rivers’ awesomely titled The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, which veers off in a completely unexpected direction halfway through. The first part, shot and edited in Rivers’ characteristic observational mode, portrays the shoot of a film in the Moroccan desert. Although it’s documentary footage that Rivers shot on the set of the new film by the French director Oliver Laxe (You All Are Captains), the extreme stylization of the 16mm images endows the film with an otherworldly feel. In some shots, the colors are washed out so that the desert landscapes resemble those of a Pasolini film and the actors wearing traditional costumes look like biblical figures. As a result, whenever crewmembers and actors are simultaneously present, the effect is weirdly anachronistic. This impression reaches surreal levels in other shots, in which specific colors are rendered so vividly – Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja came to mind – they seem to explode on the screen.

After about 45 minutes, Laxe leaves the shoot and drives off on his own, At this point The Sky Trembles shifts fully into fictional territory, turning into an adaptation of Paul Bowles’ short story A Distant Episode. I won’t describe what follows in case the reader is unfamiliar with the story, as I wish I had watched the film without prior knowledge of the plot. The surreality from this point onwards is amped up to the point of turning hallucinatory and I imagine that entering the film’s second half unawares would make for an even more bewildering trip. The Sky Trembles was the only film in the festival’s main competition to be screened in 35mm. The environment’s inherent violence, the gritty air and feverish heat of the desert seemed to ooze out of the screen, which, combined with the beauty of the images, made for a singularly breathtaking experience.

Despite the many strong titles in its selection, the festival held few discoveries in terms of new talent. In this regard, a film that stood out was the Iranian competition entry Paradise by Sina Ataeian Dena, winner of both the award for best direction in a debut feature and the Ecumenical Prize. Shot without official permission in Tehran, Paradise centers on the 25-year-old Hanieh, a teacher at a school for young girls. The plot is kept relatively uneventful and the film’s main intent is to provide an impression of everyday life in contemporary Tehran. The picture that emerges is one of an insular society governed by a constant fear of external threat, fabricated or otherwise, and breeding a heavily oppressive atmosphere, particularly for women.

In thematics and as aesthetics – rigid compositions, drab color palette, sparse camera movements and austere production design – Paradise is reminiscent of early Haneke films. Ataeian Dena also shares Haneke’s penchant for setting up scenarios that goad the viewer’s prejudices, though regrettably not always with the ability of legitimating their inclusion in the script. For example, at one point Hanieh is ominously led into a dark basement by an overly friendly stranger. As the incident makes little narrative sense, once it’s over and nothing bad happened, the provoked anxiety dissolves, leaving a bitter taste. Nevertheless, such instances are rare and outweighed by the director’s otherwise palpable empathy for his characters. In the film’s most powerful scene, Hanieh takes her students on a class trip and on the bus the girls synchronize their cellphones to play a pop song at full volume, which they then perform for the camera. The girls’ exuberance is beautiful and overwhelming, while the knowledge of its inevitable ephemerality is simultaneously devastating – one would be hard pressed to find such a humanist dialectic in The Seventh Continent or Benny’s Video.

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