MIFF 2016 – of cats & women & many other things

Film festivals are many things. They are living, breathing bodies that comprise of many individual living, breathing bodies. They have a history. They have a soul. Each of the bodies living and breathing within it also has a history and a soul. A film festival is a lot of bodies, living and breathing together in the dark.

Film festivals collect emotions, obsessions, and discoveries. They can sometimes be hard work. They should always be fun. They can induce hunger or insomnia or back pain or strained eyes. They might deliver new friends. The story of a film festival is a story about many things. But mostly it’s a story about films.

By the end of the 65th Melbourne International Film Festival (July 28 – 14 August) the stories are starting to fragment into parts and pieces. So a collection of moments remains. They tell their own story. Some of them speak to each other across disparate films, creating serendipitous and unexpected connections. For many, this year’s MIFF was a festival of cats. There they were in Kedi, a feature length documentary about cats in Istanbul. Cats with epic-sized personalities were also following the great Isabelle Huppert around in two separate films, Elle and Things to Come. For others, MIFF 2016 was all about penises. It seemed that incidental full frontal male nudity featured in more films than ever before. Twitter seemed to enjoy this and it’s a good thing for the representation of the male body more generally too. This year, thanks to Girlfriends and Aquarius, I also discovered the indoor hammock. Now I want one of my own.

At a film festival you gather moments everywhere you go – spent in queues, waiting to go inside the cinema, sitting and waiting some more for a film to start. MIFF queues have grown to gargantuan proportions and audiences at weekday sessions are now as robust as those for the evening programs. When I first became a MIFF regular it was quite different. Day sessions often comprised of just a handful of bodies. But you don’t go to a film festival to be alone.

Personal Shopper

Some of the longest queues this year were for a pair of films starring Kristen Stewart. The first I saw was Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas), a film in which the horror of grief is explored in a strange yet affecting blend of realism and the supernatural. Stewart is an actress defined by a sort of blankness. This might sound like a negative attribute, but on the contrary, it describes a complex identity poised carefully between confidence and uncertainty. It’s as indelible a part of her screen persona as Marcello Mastroianni’s ability to convey ennui or Huppert’s cool intelligence. Stewart is an actress who doesn’t perform so much as behave on screen, a quality that makes her almost compulsively watchable, while she often looks like she isn’t acting at all.

As a personal shopper and a medium, Stewart’s Maureen straddles two worlds. She endures a job she loathes to stay in Paris waiting for a sign from beyond the grave from her dead twin brother Lewis (also a medium) that he’s at peace. Personal Shopper is a ghost story that repeatedly reminds us that in the midst of life we are all in death and adds some ectoplasm and judicious special effects to the melancholy mix. Despite her ever-visible cell phone, Maureen struggles to connect both in this world and any other; but as a performer, Stewart is steadily building a direct line to our hearts.

Horror cinema can take many forms. Some films create uncanny, unsettling worlds that disturb through sensory upheaval and a feeling that what you are seeing on screen can’t be easily explained. Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilović) is one of these films – a strange spellbinder of enigmatic imagery and mood. On an unnamed island set adrift from the rest of the world young boys live with women they call ‘mother.’ They are fed a greenish-grey sludge and drink a liquid reminiscent of blue ink. Red starfish sporadically appear, most strikingly, on the body of a dead boy, whose existence is swiftly denied by the women.

Evolution

Our sense of confusion is mirrored in the experience of Nicolas, a ten-year-old boy who swiftly suspects his mother isn’t who she says she is, and is hurried away to a hospital where he finds his body used to harvest more children. Whether a parable of male puberty or of a cultural ‘horror’ of pregnancy, Evolution is a film of sensations and emotions centred around water and bodies; as Hadžihalilović has explained, the story almost plays a secondary part to these. And this is fine with me. Evolution’s enigma is an essential part of its lingering, disquieting beauty.

Evolution also reminded me of the importance of sound in film language, here, powerful and evocative by virtue of its absence. Eerie imagery is suspended in an often-empty soundscape. It is one of the quietest films I’ve ever seen.

By contrast, the directorial debut of 27-year-old actor Brady Corbet, The Childhood of a Leader, is one of the loudest. This audacious exploration of the political and personal conditions that conspire to create a fascist leader (who literally grows up in the shadow of the Treaty of Versailles) opens with an overture scored by Scott Walker of such relentless menace that it came to resemble, for me, the sound of trains hurtling towards World War II death camps. While Corbet’s film takes place in the last days of World War I, we know that this is when the seeds of World War II were planted and The Childhood of a Leader’s score, from its very opening bars, seems to encapsulate the entire story of that period from its beginning to black end. It’s a brash audio symbol of the chaos to come post-1918. There’s a similar discordant cacophony in the film’s epilogue, set some time in the future, where the child, Prescott (Tom Sweet), has grown into a fascist leader, now played by Robert Pattinson. Images toss and tumble to an increasingly frenzied score as the world descends into hell.

photo by Agatha A. Nitecka please always credit the photographer

Some sounds, however, just shouldn’t be tolerated in a film festival environment. But cinephilia has been democratised and so we must take the good, alongside the bad and sometimes the downright ugly. MIFF 2016 saw rampant mobile phone use in spite of common sense, good manners, and a strong pre-show campaign by the festival to remind audience members to switch off all devices.

What to do? You either speak up or learn, begrudgingly, to put up with it. I was faced with this dilemma during a screening of Frank & Lola (Matthew Ross), which begins with a very moody, sexy scene between the film’s eponymous lovers, Frank (Michael Shannon) and Lola (Imogen Poots). Ten minutes into this intense opening, a young woman arrived late, sat in the empty seat beside me, and proceeded to remind herself where she was, checking the film’s synopsis via the MIFF app on her phone. To my shame I remained silent, not wanting to disturb the people around me with what I feared might come out of my mouth.

Frank & Lola

A noir love story that doesn’t quite work, Frank & Lola nevertheless features a fascinating performance by Shannon showcasing the two poles of his screen persona, the tender and the terrifying. The film’s most interesting elements centre around the intimacies of Frank and Lola’s relationship, and its use of interior space and light in a mostly night palette. Between Vegas and Paris, la nuit has a magic all of its own, and that obnoxious woman’s mobile phone couldn’t pull my attention away from the lights.

Even at a film festival, where diversity is expected, audience reactions are surprisingly often discordant with expectations. The walkouts during Frederick Wiseman’s latest compassionate magnification of place, time, and people, In Jackson Heights, begged the question of what people thought they were signing up for here. True, the length and pace of a Wiseman documentary offers challenges (this one clocks in at 190 minutes), but given that so much of what is powerful about his observational, long-take style of filmmaking amasses gradually, the ‘point’ of the entire endeavour, the emotional impact, requires total, not fractured, engagement.

In Jackson Heights

In Jackson Heights is a portrait not only of a community – Jackson Heights, Queens, the most diverse community on the planet, where 167 languages are spoken – but of the idea of community itself. And it’s a film about the changing face of the American Dream, where multicultural freedom is its crowning achievement and the voracious appetite of capitalist gentrification its dark underbelly.

It was a similar, yet different scenario of frustrated expectations that met me at the close of my screening of Certain Women, the latest film from Kelly Reichardt, and Kristen Stewart’s second appearance on the MIFF slate. Stewart features in the film’s final section as Beth Travis, a lawyer teaching an adult education class once a week in a town 4 hours drive from home. Lily Gladstone, in a painfully expressive performance as a solitary ranch hand, becomes attracted and attached to her, but doesn’t quite have the words to explain her burgeoning feelings. Quietly stunned by this film’s muted emotional palette (especially this final section), I exited the cinema to a chorus of ‘that was boring’ and ‘nothing happened’ comments swirling around me. I hadn’t been bored and thought quite a lot happened in the film, so I asked myself, what was I feeling and seeing that others weren’t.

Certain Women 3

Certain Women 4

Part of the problem with the festival experience is the paucity of time allowed for a film to absorb into our pores before we have to hurriedly move onto the next one. Reichardt’s film is a patient work and requires patience from viewers. It is true that little in the way of conventional ‘action’ occurs within the film’s framework. But as a series of character sketches there is rich detail. Certain Women’s triumvirate of stories has a cumulative emotional effect – feelings will roll over you and settle like a weight on your heart if you let them. If MIFF audiences had queued to see a Kristen Stewart film rather than a Kelly Reichardt film then I can appreciate their ‘disappointment.’ Reichardt’s are small, quiet films, and while they feature substantial performers, are hardly vehicles for stars.

Based on a series of short stories by Maile Meloy, Certain Women might just be too subtle and measured storytelling for some viewers. Reichardt’s style mimics the experience of reading short fiction, where meaning is often made in the gaps and absences, and where there is often a blatant lack of exposition in the storytelling. This is especially noticeable in the film’s middle section, which features Reichardt regular Michelle Williams as Gina, who is in the process of building a new house with her husband Ryan (James LeGros). Gina barely speaks and there is clearly a distance between husband and wife. We can appreciate this through our knowledge that Ryan has been having an affair with Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer, who we meet with Ryan in the opening of the film’s first section at the end of an afternoon tryst. None of these things are spelt out. Character behaviour and motivation resonates through gesture and silence. Even so we must content ourselves with not getting all the answers. The answers here are not the story.

Certain Women 2Certain Women 1

These responses to Certain Women suggest that films made by and about women, feminist films really, pose a challenge to normative structures and demand that audiences learn a new language, to read a film in a way that is quite different to the conventionally masculine way in which we experience much of mainstream cinema. A similar argument might be made in relation to Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, which compiles a ‘story’ mostly out of empty spaces in which very little seems to happen.

It’s a question of communication, of how we see and how we interpret what we see. Which is really what Certain Women is all about. As Laura Dern’s character explains early in the film, women often have to work harder to be heard, it can be exhausting, so sometimes we just don’t bother speaking at all. This problem is the film’s connective tissue, uniting all three stories – a yearning to speak, to confess, to reveal, alongside an ever-present fear of doing so. Certain Women reminds us that this isn’t something experienced only by certain women, but by most. And if women have to work harder to be heard this is mirrored in the experience of watching this film. Certain Women doesn’t shout, but if you listen closely and carefully it has a lot to tell you.

Certain Women is just one film in a festival that was, for me, very much about women, behind cameras and in front of them.

There was the great Japanese actress Setsuko Hara (who died in 2015 at the age of 95) in a retrospective of some of her finest films, including No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa), Late Spring (Yasujirō Ozu), Tokyo Story (Ozu), Early Summer (Ozu), and Sound of the Mountain (Mikio Naruse). Hara, an actress of extraordinary intelligence, sensitivity, and grace, has one of the great cinema faces. Highly expressive and mysterious, it’s more than just beautiful, but a face that somehow encapsulates nothing less than the whole human heart.

Late Spring

Complex emotional terrain was also offered by the reigning queen of French cinema, Isabelle Huppert, whose films Elle (Paul Verhoeven) and Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve), gave us older women behaving in ways that repeatedly defied expectations of femininity in specific high-pressure emotional situations. In Things to Come, Huppert is Nathalie, a philosophy teacher and former radical, whose life is disordered by her marriage ending and her mother dying and a number of smaller earthquakes in between. Playing with ideas about the limits of liberty and freedom, Hansen-Løve’s gentle masterstroke of not permitting Nathalie to have sex with a former, very attractive, student (Fabien, played by Roman Kolinka), adds further nuance and depth to another deceptively simple story, despite the excruciatingly palpable sexual tension between them. I’ve never wanted two characters to sleep together more, but I’ve never been gladder that they didn’t.

Things to Come

Elle

Few women could do Verhoeven’s rape-revenge movie Elle justice, but Huppert, an actress whose emotional intelligence runs beyond deep, pulls it off successfully. Elle is a provocation on trauma, desire, and forgiveness. It’s many other things too, but what it isn’t, strictly, is a comedy. There’s nothing light and breezy about the representation of rape, and any laughs (of which there are many), come from Huppert’s responses as Michèle in the aftermath of her trauma to the maelstrom around her. Challenging our expectations of how we think women should or shouldn’t react to sexual assault, Elle is also interesting as a study of the antithetical poles of attraction and repulsion. This is most confronting in the game of cat-and-mouse that plays out between Michèle and her attacker, and is then mirrored in how we, the audience, respond to this. Even if we don’t like or understand Michèle’s choices, we are always on her side. Elle thrives on ambiguity; it’s a film I’ll be thinking about and writing about for years to come.

There’s a similar depth of intelligence teeming throughout Sonia Braga’s quite magnificent performance in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Braga’s Clara is a retired music critic, in her mid-60s, who has survived breast cancer and is now trying to survive the development of the beachside apartment block in northeast Brazil where she has lived most of her adult life. Mendonça Filho has a gift for creating an intoxicating sense of space and place. The sound of the ocean outside Clara’s window is ever-present and we understand that this living space is more than just a home – it contains the very essence of Clara’s soul. It was disappointing that neither session of Aquarius at MIFF was sold out. It’s a rare thing to see a woman of Clara’s age, so fully fleshed out, living sensually and soulfully on screen. She deserved to be seen by more.

Aquarius

If these films, like those in the outstanding ‘Gaining Ground: Take Notice’ program (of which I saw all but one), point to progress and complexity in the representation of women on screen, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon reversed this trend. Uncomfortable viewing for all the wrong reasons, Refn’s film presents itself as a garish, excessive critique of a garish, excessive culture, but it’s never as clever as it thinks it’s being. My eyes may have popped at some of The Neon Demon’s visual pleasures, but there is nothing liberating or challenging about the women assembled on screen, or for those of us sitting in the audience, to see our bodies imagined as objects of desire over and above all else. It’s hardly news that the fashion industry is a shallow one that eats its own. In doing little more than alienating and nauseating his audience to make a self-evident point, Refn has produced a rather meaningless gender and genre spectacle.

The Neon Demon

From the ridiculous to what was the film of the festival, for me, the sublime Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade). Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) asks his workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) early in the film, “Are you really human?” It’s a question that hurts her and the film then proceeds to show Ines and us what being human really means as a way of repairing that wound. When Winfried transforms into his prankish alter-ego Toni Erdmann, it’s to show Ines, who is clearly unsatisfied, and, like her father, in a depressive state, what is valuable about life – the importance of kindness, of sharing things, of caring for others, and for allowing others to help you. But most of all, Toni teaches Ines the importance of laughter and embracing lightness. Ade’s film is genuinely hilarious, deeply moving, and perceptive about the ways in which the modern world (especially the workplace) can often strip us of our humanity. It’s correct then that in a reversal of this state of affairs, Ines has her most human moment without her clothes on. A lesson well learned. Turns out, Toni Erdmann is the life coach we all need.

Toni Erdmann 1

MIFF 2016 amassed a lot of moments. And these are what matter and remain. The hushed beauty of the establishing shot of the road in Certain Women. Sonia Braga dancing freely around her apartment in Aquarius and the heavy silence of Maman’s empty rooms in No Home Movie. Feeling a sense of relief when Damien and Thomas finally fall into bed with a palpable physical urgency in Andre Techine’s Being 17. The riotous inanity of men competing to assemble Ikea furniture in Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari) and Anna Biller’s deconstruction of romance mythology in the closing scenes of The Love Witch. Laughing so hard I cried during The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis). Crying so hard during Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi) when the Nigerian refugee rhythmically and desperately recounts his story. Spending time with gentle Adam Driver in Paterson and his observational verse. And that moment in Born to Be Blue (Robert Budreau) when Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker performs ‘My Funny Valentine’, and an entire audience held its breath, waiting to exhale until he touched that last, swoony note.

Born-to-Be-Blue

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