There has been a common theme running through a good number of films on this year’s festival slate: enclosure, whether willful or forced – but mostly willful. While it is far from original a conceit to spy out four or more walls and lens one’s film with a ‘claustrophobic’ angle (this motif endures eternally), the notion of boxing oneself away from the world to observe at a safe remove has never felt more appropriate than in these troubled times as we look at jpegs of refugees washing up on Mediterranean shores. From horrors (Goodnight Mommy, The Witch) to social documents (Taxi Tehran, Chuck Norris vs. Communism) to dramatic realism (One Floor Below, The Tree) to even the act of viewership itself, there is a sense of looking at the world from behind a protective glass, shielding the self from harm’s way to try and make sense of it all but nevertheless feeling a spark of complicity flicker uneasily in the pit of the belly.
This thought came to me before entering Pablo Larrain’s The Club, which aptly felt like the bundled-up tension of everything prior pressured until bursting point. It possesses a damning, furious force that almost every other film in the festival forgoes in favour of mild discomfort, and will entice or alienate some viewers as a result. The film opens on a secluded house in a Chilean coastal village where a number of elderly priests have been sent to purge their sins under the watch of a female caretaker. There’s a gauzy, smoky veneer to the visuals, all dim lighting and soft focus, and incessant drawn-out strings from Carlos Cabezas that linger, anticipating the road ahead, an almighty climax of tolling bells ringing in the final judgement – and a final word on the festival’s prevailing theme of suppressing both past and present. More than an indictment of the Church and its cover-ups, the film shows just how far some will go to maintain comfort in the midst of ruin – specifically protected elites, shifting blame toward the disenfranchised.
There are marginally more selfless motives on display in Magical Girl, a thriller in three interwoven acts by Spanish director Carlos Vermut. Initial protagonist Luis (Luis Bermejo) wishes to buy a dress for his leukaemia-afflicted daughter Alicia, and in his desperation resorts to blackmailing a married woman (Barbara Lennie) with whom he had spent the night. Worried that her marriage will be ruined, Barbara turns to seasoned mobster and suitably named Damian (Jose Sacristan) who hangs on her every word and is worryingly willing to act on any one of them. Love appears to be a motivating factor in every character’s action, whether to provide, protect, appease or avenge one’s nearest and dearest. There is an absence of a universal love, however; everyone acts under a vain variation, doing whatever it takes for the sake of their loved ones at the expense of someone else. There’s almost no non-diegetic music, nor much movement of the camera: the lens is peeled on the steps of its characters, walking on egg-shells. I can’t say the film was ever less-than-engaging over the course of its 127-minute runtime, though it does regularly tip into lunacy for the sheer sake of it, and doesn’t overall have a whole lot to say for itself: it’s quiet to a fault.
Back to entrapment: I was relieved to get the chance to see a Piotr Szulkin film on the big screen, and none better than the strangely titled O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilisation. Its inhabitants are stuck in a large vault following a nuclear holocaust, protected from the outside radiation and sub-zero temperature by a dome that is said to be crumbling apart bit-by-bit. Their only hope is a fabled Ark, prophesised to rescue them from their suffering before the clock runs out. Jerzy Stuhr plays Soft, an agitated wanderer who moves around the vault encountering all manner of people with differing hopes, fears, and ideologies, the camera sweeping alongside him and bumping into folk in a way that reminded me of last year’s similarly ambitious Hard to Be a God. The bunker is lit by several fluourescent blue light tubes – clearly the only stock available in the end-times – which render everything bitterly cold and decaying. I adored this film; there’s something wholly convincing and absorbing about Eastern European dystopia of the era – I’m reminded of Nikos Nikolaidis’ Morning Patrol as another great example – and underpinning the film’s vivid, haunting imagery and painstaking world-building are all the sociopolitical sci-fi tropes that have littered around in its wake. I’m thinking specifically of Boon Jong-Ho’s Snowpiercer, a clear descendant albeit based on other source material. These two films especially, almost thirty years apart, look into the future of a ruined earth and allow pre-existing failed ideologies to survive and thrive as stubborn stains, exposing them as plainly farcical and damaging in their future context. As ever, preachiness is the pitfall, but sci-fi is the garden of metaphor from which to pluck fruitful analogies and decipher a road-map forward, and this is a worthwhile text in that regard.
Sion Sono has six features to his name already this year – I have none – and the festival picked two of them for the program: Love and Peace, and Tag. I attended the UK Premiere of the latter with high hopes; Tokyo Tribe was one of my favourite films of last year, and although Sono regularly bobs up and down in my estimation, I’m never less than intrigued to see what madness he’ll cook up next. Tag, based on the novel Riaru Onigokko by Yusuke Yamada, sees schoolgirl Mitsuko (Reina Triendly) experience successive surreal scenarios wherein close friends die and resurrect in the casual fashion of a video-game. To kick things off, Mitsuko’s schoolbus is sliced open by a killer gust of wind – an event that got me rather hopeful I was about to see a Japanese rendition of The Happening. It was not to be: Mitsuko escapes to her school to find everyone seen decimated in the wreck impossibly alive and well. Further bizarre excursions include a wedding ceremony whose groom possesses a pig’s head, and a running marathon where said pig cartwheels in pursuit of Mitsuko and co. The film’s ending springs a truly groan-inducing rationale for everything that’s occurred, disingenuously questioning the spectacles of carnage that we enjoy across various audiovisual mediums, this one included. But for a film that spent the preceding minutes hanging its loose, shapeless structure upon a series of excitedly macabre indulgences, the eleventh-hour moralising is a tough sell.
The best treatment of (various types of) conflict in the festival, and in any film this year for that matter, is in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin. Anyone unfamiliar with the director might expect this foray into wuxia – Hou’s first, developed over seven years – to adhere somewhat to conventional genre thrills. But the fights are few, they are never more than a few seconds long, and the combatants aren’t always explicitly identified. Hou is primarily invested in the spiritual struggle of assassin Yinniang (Qi Shu), sent back to the Weibo province from which she was taken as a child and ordered to kill her once-betrothed cousin using her unmatched stealth skills – talents only hindered by her overriding compassion. Hou is also interested in the Chinese politics of the 6th Century as a metaphor about modern authoritarian China, specifically the disobedience of the Weibo province and its effect on the Tang dynasty’s stability. The film offers a good share of expository text and dialogue to explain the history of the land and its characters’ backstory, but even so the relationships between not just institutional bodies but also some of the characters onscreen is at times (intentionally) difficult to follow. Having absorbed the texture and atmosphere of the film on Wednesday, I went back again the following night for a second screening to experience it once more with a greater handle on some of the narrative. Unlike some critics, I can’t feign to know with pinpoint accuracy the entire litany of names and connections, and I’m reticent to retype the film’s press notes verbatim.
On this second viewing, the film opened up – blossomed, rather – and I began to experience proceedings not around Yinniang, but through her. Glacially slow scenes set inside bedchambers are captured behind thin, billowing curtains, as if the assassin is watching the scene with us, and every held gaze is a long reflection, a justified Slow Cinema. The sumptuous golds and reds of the Weibo temples, captured in 35mm by regular Hou collaborator Ping Bin Lee, are an immediate delight but their surface allure diminishes in favour of human action and inaction. But there is little judgement in this parable: only a sad empathy, a compassionate mode of filmmaking that transports Hou’s familiar themes of alienation and isolation to a distant land. I could see it a third time, and a fourth.
There was a sizable turnout for the Closing Night of the festival, around 800 in all. Spirits were high coming off what many agreed to be a strong year of programming, organisation and turnout. Contrary to what I assumed, the announcement of the Audience Award was held off until midnight to account for feedback on Carol. What I didn’t foresee was Carol’s final placement at #10 on the final rankings, below the likes of Taxi Tehran and Green Room. Minutes before its screening, the festival compere implied the film would duke it out between then-frontrunners In the Crosswind, Assassination Classroom and Liza the Fox Fairy (the final winner).
I gave Todd Haynes’ 50s romance a respectable four stars on the feedback sheet – engrossing, affecting, top-rate technical filmmaking with few surprises. The film’s screenplay is written by Phyllis Nagy, based on 1952 novel The Price of Salt written by Patricia Highsmith under a pseudonym, and stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett as lovers Therese Belivet and Carol Aird, respectively. Less luminously stylized than Haynes’ previous Sirkian feature film, Far from Heaven, the colourful yet muted period production manages to evoke a seasonal, simultaneously warm and wintry aura that matches the bittersweet attraction between two women in the 50s who worry that the fate of their love is beholden to timing, circumstance and judgement. The aesthetic restraint extends to narrative pace, with Haynes drawing out the eventual kiss until a good hour in; we take time to look at how these two look at one another, thinking about the relationship between what their words say to what their eyes tell us. Credit to the casting of Kyle Chandler, on that note, as Carol’s estranged husband Harge; his eyes are equally expressive, narrow and mournful, working against what could have been an archetypal presentation as the ‘bad spouse’.
So the eyes bare the soul. While Highsmith’s source novel, which I have not read, apparently takes the sole perspective of Therese, Haynes elects to adopt both hers and Carol’s, and in doing so utilises a key visual component of cinema, exclusively visualising the interiority of both persons through fleeting exchanges of stares and minor gestures. Further praise goes to Carter Burwell for his wondrous melodic score, which I am in the process of hunting down, and costume designer Sandy Powell, whose outfits are significantly integral to character
Bizarrely, Carol finished below Brooklyn, which ended at a respectable #4 in the rankings. Haynes’ film opens in the US this week and the UK next week, and is already attracting sweeping critical praise, and it’s fair to say – as I did in my first entry – that in the long-run it will have a better long-term future, owing to auteurist cherishment and a probable Oscar gong for Mara following her Cannes win. Consider this, though: in 2012, the director originally attached to Phyllis Nagy’s Carol screenplay was none other than John Crowley, director of Brooklyn. In another universe…