Is that all there is? MIFF 2014 wrap up

The 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival has come to an end. Life is now apparently returning to something that approximates normal, or certainly, ordinary.

Life can’t always be as amplified as it is when you are daily and hourly engaged with the screen. Maybe it’s not even a very healthy way to spend your time. But while it’s happening you wouldn’t have it any other way. And anyway, I’d argue that when we engage with the lives of others (real and imaginary) we are actually much closer to understanding our own relationships and ourselves.

MIFF was especially memorable this year because of my participation in the inaugural Critics Campus. It was a pretty fabulous experience, meeting lots of very inspiring people, participants and mentors alike – and Adrian Martin and Margaret Pomeranz! – and having the chance to produce my own daily coverage during a festival. I learned a lot about film criticism and about developing my own voice in a saturated environment. I feel like I have a stronger sense of why I am doing this and where I want it to go in the future.

You can read all of the Critics Campus’ excellent coverage for MIFF here – – where I wrote a personal, reflective review of The 400 Blows and a feature on Richard Linklater’s search for real time, bouncing off Boyhood but delving further into his filmography.

My coverage for The Age newspaper (online edition) can be found at the following links if you are so inclined:

Review of Goodbye to Language

Review of The Dirties

Review of Locke

Review of Divorce, Italian Style

Review of School of Babel

Feature article on MIFF’s Commedia all’italiana strand–comedy-italian-style-20140814-3dpx0.html

In addition to the films I watched for my writing assignments I saw many others, but less than I was booked in for, due to an all-consuming exhaustion upon returning to office life in week two while continuing to write into the wee small hours.

Among the films I made it to I was impressed by James Gray’s The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, which I saw on the first weekend and which has quietly resonated for me ever since (review coming soon), challenged by Jean-Luc Godard’s new cinematic experiment, Goodbye to Language, intrigued by Frederick Wiseman’s 244 minute documentary At Berkeley and moved by Linklater’s Boyhood. I had a wonderful time laughing at the five films in the Commedia all’italiana strand, because you can never really have enough Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman or Alberto Sordi. And this program had plenty of all of them.

Beautiful Marion Cotillard in James Gray's quietly haunting The Immigrant
Beautiful Marion Cotillard in James Gray’s quietly haunting The Immigrant
One of the many moments of hilarity in Pietro Germi's Divorce, Italian Style
One of the many moments of hilarity in Pietro Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him starring the luminous Jessica Chastain and the rather splendid James McAvoy helped close my festival on its final day. Brilliant debut films by Ned Benson, with performances of the highest quality, these films need to be seen back to back as they were screened at MIFF (with enough time in between to get some wine and a sandwich). They work like echoes; the layering and repetition and the immediacy of the experience intensify their emotional impact. (Review coming soon)

Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy both astound in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy both astound in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

And then there was my final festival film, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster about the legendary Wing Chun master, Ip Man (Tony Leung). Initial rumblings from audience members around me who clearly thought they were about to see a John Woo Kung Fu movie and not a Wong Kar-wai movie, didn’t put me off. Yes, there was Kung Fu but it was really just foreplay to a tale about agonizing unrequited love like only Kar-wai can fashion. I loved a lot about it, the extreme beauty of some of its set pieces, the silences and the sensual, languorous camera work, but felt that this wasn’t really the film Kar-wai wanted to release – he has shot a longer version with fewer title cards and references to Bruce Lee, I’m guessing. The version that screened at MIFF has the hand of Harvey Weinstein all over it. For us diehard Wong Kar-wai fans, this isn’t ideal.

The Grandmaster is another exquisitely beautiful film from the great Wong Kar-wai
The Grandmaster is another exquisitely beautiful film from the great Wong Kar-wai

This MIFF I was reminded once again of the beauty in grey, in old masterpieces, The 400 Blows, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, and Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Departure, all part of the Jean-Pierre Léaud program. A new French film also made extraordinary use of black and white photography. Philippe Garrel’s fifth collaboration with his superbly coiffed, strikingly attractive son, Louis Garrel, Jealousy, presents the aftermath of a man’s decision to leave the mother of his child and live with another woman. Not a lot happens beyond that and at 77 minutes it sounds lightweight, narratively, but it’s not a case of style over substance. The refined matte texture of the images shot by legendary cinematographer Willy Kurant (Masculin Féminin) feel in perfect agreement with the subject matter.

The beauty of grey - and Louis' hair - in Philippe Garrel's Jealousy
The beauty of grey – and Louis’ hair – in Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy

Creating art from life, Garrel gives us moments of quiet tragedy and loss without the fireworks you expect from the film’s title. There are grey areas in our hearts where our motivations can’t always be explained. This might all seem very French, but it’s a view of people I’d like to subscribe to, a sense that what makes us tick is never all bad and all good. A full review is coming soon.

Any MIFF should also be a time for making discoveries, seismic ones if possible. I shamefully declare that until last week I had not seen a film by the 25-year-old French-Québécois writer/director Xavier Dolan. Dolan had two films screening in the International Panorama strand – 2013’s Tom at the Farm and the Cannes 2014 Jury Prize winner, Mommy. Hearing murmurings from colleagues and mentors at the Critics Campus that both films were amazing, but that Mommy in particular was the film they’d seen so far to have the most profound effect on them, I knew I had to see it.

While reassured by my mentors at Critics Campus that it’s okay to admit you haven’t seen something because no one person can see every film ever released this seemed like a bizarre hole in my viewing, since Dolan’s influences – Wong Kar-wai, Truffaut and others – are among the things I hold dearest in cinema. His sensibility seemed a good fit for my own. Both Dolan films had been on my initial long-list of films, but due to some scheduling clashes and changes so that I could fulfill my writing commitments, I had to cut them both.

But then the Festival gods smiled down on me with an encore screening of Mommy on the third last night and I pulled out of two other films to see it. I wasn’t sorry. The buzz it was generating was entirely justified. For a couple of days after I have to admit I struggled to put into words what it was that happened to me when I was watching it. Mommy is more than just a ‘good’ film and a well-directed film and brilliantly performed film. It’s experimental without alienating, never sacrificing substance for style. All of its exquisite cinematic flourishes are in complete service to story and character.

Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon are so so good in Xavier Dolan's Mommy
Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon are so so good in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy

Most of all Mommy is a full attack on your senses confirming my belief that cinema, when all its notes are in seamless harmony, can move you like no other art form. My heart felt full and wrecked by the end of it. Turns out, that’s a pretty great feeling. It is my film of MIFF 2014.

I will be writing a short review of Mommy over the next week and a longer piece on Dolan in the next month, once he and I become more intimately acquainted. ACMI (The Australian Centre for the Moving Image) are screening all his films (except Mommy) – I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways, and Tom at the Farm – starting mid-September and I already have my tickets so I can fill those regretful holes.

It was also a festival of close-ups. In The Grandmaster, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Her and Him), Boyhood, The Immigrant, The Mother and the Whore, Mommy and Locke, close-ups featured aplenty, drawing us in deeply and creating an attachment between character and audience that can be overwhelming. I wouldn’t call it a trend – the close-up has never really gone away – but since the intimacy of Blue is the Warmest Color it seems to be making a comeback of sorts, and I think it’s worth exploring. I’ll do that soon too.

So, yeah, it’s been a big couple of weeks for me personally. I was elated and exhausted, in the best kind of way.

And then there was this.

Robin Williams 1951-2014
Robin Williams 1951-2014
Lauren Bacall 1924-2014
Lauren Bacall 1924-2014

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