I saw three great films today. Count ’em. Three. Great. Films. The highlights of the festival so far I had previously claimed to be Low Lights, The Misfortunates, Wolfy, Human Centipede, Bright Star and FILM IST a girl and a gun… now we can add a couple more to that list, possibly above all of them… possibly.
In fact, most of today’s offerings were so strong that it pains me to have to begin by squeezing out a write-up for the first of the four films I saw on the seventh day of the festival, arguably the weakest of the bunch and one which I didn’t partcularly care for at all; nevertheless, a few things must be said.
Guidance (Johan Jonason, Sweden, 2009) most likely flounders because of the aforementioned strong competition it shares on this day; or maybe because it was so early in the day and I hadn’t fully woken up yet. Maybe it’s not my fault. The film is admirable enough, even if it is a little thin with its ambition. Guidance tells the story of Roy, an overweight layabout who can’t get out of bed in the morning, through lack of motivation and a very sore back. Determined to rectify this almost paralytic state, he finds himself agreeing to a getaway in the wilderness with a strange guide named Carl, all in a concerted effort to vastly improve his fitness and mentality.
Carl isn’t quite what he seems – didn’t see that one coming – and when we’re eventually let into some of his unsual, private talks in the dead of night, it becomes all to clear why he’s been acting the way he has, and where this story is going. Still, the camera keeps a close frame on its actors in these times of mental frustration, probing their anguish and capably bringing out the humanity of the moment. These are real issues, no doubt, but when the film reaches its conclusion at a mere 82 minutes, and we’re left with Roy’s smug face suggesting there’s more to consider – well duh, Roy – you can’t help but feel as if the film is being awfully smug; at the very least, it’s dreadfully slight and not quite as profound or lasting as it believes itself to be.
Yes, predictability is an ugly thing. Some signals can inform you of a film’s ending way before it arrives, leading you to a premature conclusion and possible oversight as to whatever strengths the film may possess. These were my thoughts in the opening minutes of La Pivellina (Tizza Covi & Rainer Frimmel, Austria, 2009), in which the mother of a travelling circus troupe stumbles across a lost, perhaps abandoned child in the middle of a playground. As she takes her home, comforts her and begins the bonding process, I felt a horrible sense of deja vu. How many films have we seen with this plot?
Looks are indeed deceiving, for ambiguity and nuance are among the achievements of this film, a moving family portrait that does well in proving my initial assessment to be dead wrong. Can you blame me? We’re so used to seeing this sort of story filtered through a saccharine lens that we become all too eager to throw away any values it may leave us with. And yet, as this little girl settled in to her new family, as they began to share precious memories together, I became totally convinced. It felt as if the film was a collection of home movies strung together, so truthful did each moment feel. It’s hard to believe these people were actually actors and not a real family.
The young girl – who must be about 3 or 4 years old – never puts a foot wrong, so what occurs on screen seems as real as anything, and all the emotions ring true. After Wolfy left such a devastating impression on me the previous night, I was comforted to find that in La Pivellina I had found a film that served as a genuine display of human love and affection, allowing me to feel emotion instead of simply telling me to. The final scene is as inspired as the rest, right up to the final image, a shot which speaks for itself, refusing to place an end to a story that is much like life itself; ongoing, without a digestible three-act structure.
A different kind of emotion was expressed by the audience of Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2009), ostensibly one of pure laughter derived from the bizarre events occuring onscreen. However, what was working underneath the surface of this film – and indeed, what was felt beneath the laughter of we, the audience – was a disturbing portrayal of a household in which the children have been allowed to grow up physically, but not mentally; as such, the laughter is uneasy, in disbelief and in prepatation for what danger could ensue. The father is the only one allowed out of the house, obviously to earn a living, whilst the rest of the family stay inside and demonstrate to us the eerie effects of their overprotected upbringing. Apparently, a pussy is a type of light. A zombie is a small yellow flower. The small animal in the garden is the enemy and must be destroyed at all costs.
The laughs were consistent throughout the film, although as time wore on the sinister implications of this disturbed environment became apparent. The world – or house – presented to us appears to be a microcosm of our society in which a paternal authority is making the decisions for us in regards to censorship. Refusing to tell us the truth. Refusing to let us grow up, even if we are of age. Dogtooth won the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival in May, generating a buzz that has stayed with it in the lead up to its screening at this very festival; a well deserved buzz indeed. Provocative, unsettling filmmaking of the highest order, it’s going to look mighty cute sitting next to Dogville on my DVD shelf; thank God I don’t own Dogtown and the Z-Boys.
A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 2009) had a queue snaking around the back of the picture house. A poster informing any wishful thinkers that tickets had indeed sold out. A flurry of cinemagoers desperately trying to find a good seat and having to eventually resort to sitting at the back. “Is someone sitting there?” “Yes.” Sucks to be me. The Coen Brothers are back, it would seem, and everyone – even you- is more than happy to see what they have to offer.
It’s 1967, in the suburbs of Minnesota, and Professor Larry Gopnik isn’t exactly having the time of his life. His wife’s leaving him, his son is misbehaving and he’s under constant pressure from all comers: his employer and his students causing him an unhealthly level of anxiety. Being a Jewish man, he wants answers from God as to why this is happening, what it all means and how he can change the circumstances. In a sense, this is a fable loosely based on the biblical tale of Job, who had everything taken away from him in a spiritual test that would determine the strength of his faith in God. Larry is a weaker man than Job; he visits several rabbis with several different perspectives in an attempt to gain some understanding into the nature of his misfortune, but none of them manage to give him any solace. The journey of his mischievous son runs in close paralel, as the boy is about to finally become a man and must soon face up to adult responsibility.
I heard prior to the screening that A Serious Man had an interesting ending, much like that of No Country For Old Men two years ago. It’s interesting because it provokes discussion as to how one will interpret it, and our own interpretation will entirely depend on how we’ve been following the narrative up to this point. A spiritual man will have a different view on events than, say, a man without faith. It should be noted that the Coens are not religious – or so they say – and with this knowledge in mind I choose to look at A Serious Man‘s ending as a bleak nihilistic statement, similar to the finish of No Country For Old Men, which incidentally can and has been opened up to supernatural readings in addition to its concerns pertaining to fatalism.
Despite their bleak outlook, the Coens still know to have fun, with the sharp, satirical script proving to be one of their funniest to date. The brothers sure know how to write, they definitely know how to direct, and through encouraging discussion over common, pressing issues through their deliberately ambiguous symbolism, they are opening up a deeper film language to the mainstream movie audience. For that they should be commended once more.