In my previous post I touched briefly on the unique capacity of art to aid us in a greater understanding of ourselves, our home planet and its many cultures and histories. Film especially has the property of displaying certain events transpiring in a certain place, in real-time, and can take us from extreme opposing climes of both luxury and poverty with varying empathetic results. How we feel is contingent on whether the chosen film takes liberties with its viewers trust or, more agreeably, leaves them to engage and interrogate of their own free will. 12 Years a Slave, with its distillation of a far-reaching atrocity distilled into the A to B journey of one sympathetic protagonist, is seen in some quarters as the quintessential ‘liberal guilt’ movie. It’s just radical enough to evoke from its audience a silver tear already evaporated by the time of the end credits, but not too radical to alienate that audience altogether. These films can enlighten ignorance and engender the slightest fleeting shred of shame, though what happens once the lights are up and one is returned to normalcy, back out on the piss-lined paving of Leicester Square?
These thoughts ran through my mind as I watched Horse Money, the first full-length from Portugese director Pedro Costa since his masterful Colossal Youth drew international acclaim in 2006 and thusly elevated his standing to new heights. We last saw spirit guide Ventura lying face-up on a bed in a blank white apartment at the close of Colossal Youth, and we find him here in much the same sort of environment, horizontal on an isolated hospital bed, powerless and resigned. There are no more familiar places in which to roam, no repeated incantations of hope for distant loved ones; the film’s bodies – Cape Verdean immigrants left to languish on the outskirts of Lisbon – are now further displaced, fragmented and despondent than before, scattered around the slums to wander as ghosts. Costa’s chiaoscauro lighting and slanted compositions express an unsustainable malaise that nevertheless persists, the reach of the yellow glow steadily perishing like a solitary candle in a dark room, burning itself out in slow motion.
One scene near the end sees Ventura engage in a gruelling exchange of denial and undeniable truths with the apparition of a cast-iron soldier, the pair of them stuffed inside an immobile elevator. Carving out the common ground between them, the soldier tells Ventura, “They won’t remember our faces… they’ll say nice things about us.” This hit me hard; the souls (it does a disservice to call them characters) in Horse Money haven’t just fallen through the cracks, they’ve landed in another place and continued to suffer in silence. Costa’s poetic cinema generates more questions than answers, does not give his protagonist a resolution, does not simplify a complex case-study in order to satiate the viewer’s vanity. This is a cinema of sense, compelling us to feel the unimaginable instead of following the concrete. What happens when the lights come up?
The next flavour of ‘understanding’ came at a cut of three hours and twenty minutes, every single solitary second of it well and truly earned. Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin – a near-casualty of my feckless festival scheduling – is an ostensible shift in tone for the notoriously miserable French auteur, a refreshingly light jaunt around a seaside village that plays host to a cast of wildly eccentric characters, from the titular, brash young bruiser Quinquin (Alane Delhaye) to the hysterical Captain van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost), a hapless hack beset with a tic that sees him twitching every muscle in his face as a matter of habit. Van der Weyden is on the case of the cow-carcass killer, in a mystery that engulfs and ‘exterminates’ nearly half the town across the course of four 50-minute chapters, or episodes (it is, technically, a miniseries), resulting in the film’s initial light-hearted tone, cleverly derived from the childlike naivety of the title character, subside into anxiety as a terrifying reality of man’s murderous capability dawns. Van der Weyden’s endpoint resembles the starting point of Humanité‘s Emmanuel Schotte’s Pharaon de Winter, who was more or less traumatised from the off. But this is a gradual encroachment; Dumont is not lathering on a thick melancholia as per usual, rather opting to establish a milieu of equal parts light and dark before allowing the more sinister elements to seep in and soak. It’s a trick that worked a charm for Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s much-loved television series wherein the amiable company of black coffee-connoisseur Dale Cooper was counterpoised by the unsettling aura of the Black Lodge.
In Li’l Quinquin, the adults and the kids each embody – unknowingly or through earnest attempt – the other’s domain, be it Quinquin and his friends exhibiting racist and homophobic intolerance from a worryingly early age, or Captain van der Weyden’s comical deviation from a murder case for the opportunity to fulfil his childhood dream of riding a white horse. And yet both generations can meet halfway to share confusion at the way of the world. It’s a breath of fresh air to see a murder-mystery so deftly juggle several belly laughs at the idiosyncrasies of its characters while simultaneously staring them straight in the eyes. This is Dumont’s defining work.
Lastly: understanding ourselves. I felt a pang of perverse hypocrisy to depart from Costa’s Horse Money and go directly toward a swanky gala for Mommy, even brushing past director Xavier Dolan himself on the red carpet as I made my entrance. Following the aforementioned double-knockouts, I was expecting a guaranteed comedown from a director whose work I had never been overly enamoured with. To his credit, Dolan is 25-years-old and at five films at counting, has achieved more than I likely ever will in my lifetime. That’s a sobering, self-deprecating thought. My qualms regarding Dolan largely lie with the stylistic flights of fancy that appear incongruous even to the filmmaker himself, as he so admitted in the post-screening Q&A. However, with age comes maturity and the casting away of bad habits. For Mommy, style itself is half cast away, the frame cut down to a 1:1 ratio (a square) to restrict the image to a foregrounded character and eliminate the need for complex compositions. It’s clear from this decision and the resulting film that Dolan ultimately prides performance, story and emotion over formal showmanship. Clearly the audience was onside, because by the time Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’ roused over the closing credits, the largest and most resounding applause of the festival erupted around me.
There’s plenty to admire here. The ‘instagram cam’, as Dolan mockingly termed it, locks our eyes solely onto the character and thusly applies pressure on all actors to knock their turns out of the park. A trio of exceptional performers resides at the heart of this story: Antoine Olivier-Pilon stars as difficult son Steve, whose ADHD drives mommy Diane (Anne Dorval) to wit’s end before the integration of introverted neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément) brings some measure of restorative balance. There are swelling strings. There is ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis. There are countless moments that gave me cause to roll my eyes and prime my dismissal. But there are almost moments of profound truthfulness that resonated personally; it’s a film primarily concerned with a mother coping with her son’s mental health issues, a subject that hits particularly close to home. If someone had earlier told me that a Xavier Dolan film would have me fighting with all my strength to hold back a flood of tears, I’d have called them a liar. Yet that’s what happened. The true power of art can arise in the unlikeliest of places, and as a consequence we can see inside ourselves and know we are not an island. The screen wilfully lies to us so often and so remorselessly that when the truth finally does hit, it’s a closed-fist punch straight to the throat.