With thoughts on Broken Embraces, A Christman Tale, Disgrace, Jerichow, In the Loop and Paper Soldier, STEVE GARDEN continues his post-mortem of the New Zealand International Film Festival, separating the stellar from the middle-of-the-road.


NEITHER poetic nor political, Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces is perfect. Perfectly designed, perfectly composed, perfectly scored, full of perfect faces, this lush noir-tinged homage to classic Hollywood is a perfectly mounted film. It is also a perfect bore.

It wasn’t the longest two-hours of my life (although it might’ve been had it been screened at the Academy), but it confirmed that Almodóvar’s films are not for me. Enthusiastic critics in the 80s likened them to those by Buńuel and Godard, which may account for the feeling I have every time I dislike one that I’m missing something. Almodóvar is a distinctive and accomplished filmmaker. His films promote tolerance and respect, are genuinely fond of people, non-judgmental, and entertaining. He has great technical mastery; an iconoclastic sensibility; is cine-literate; critical of piety and hypocrisy; an advocate for political, religious, cultural and sexual freedom, and has been revered for his contribution to world cinema for the last three decades. His films are appreciated in all parts of the world, which is more than can be said about many cine-heavyweights (even Tarkovsky’s fans struggle to defend him against charges of pretence and elitism). Yet, for the most part, Almodóvar’s films leave me unmoved and indifferent.

Maybe I’m just an elitist who likes pretentious cinema, but the truth is, it’s hard to get excited about films that merely entertain (no matter how gorgeously constructed they are), usually because they do all the work. Such films are primarily focused on stories and characters, and play best to empathetic (non-critical) viewers. One basically gets on for the ride, and on that level Almodóvar’s films are fine, superior even, but when compared to the best of world cinema, they’re kind of MOR. It’s not that his films have no thematic substance, but they’re rarely very deep. The theme of blindness in Broken Embraces (a blind filmmaker, no less) had potential, but it didn’t go anywhere – in fact it became a liability. This may sound harsh, but Almodóvar’s films can be like glorified TV: artfully structured episodes of Friends with Penelope Cruz as a moviefied Courtney Cox. Cruz is a capable actress, but her function here is only slightly less superficial than the pop-art crucifixes and inane paintings of guns that decorate the interiors. While it may be unfair to criticise Almodóvar for not being another Buńuel or Godard, this is precisely the company he is often aligned with, a critical appraisal that I find hard to accept. However, judging by the applause at the end of the screening, Almodóvar won’t be losing sleep over uncomprehending quibbles like mine.

But being perplexed by Almodóvar’s eminence is nothing compared to my failure to comprehend Arnaud Desplechin’s stature. Kings and Queen irritated me to the core, and while A Christmas Tale is a slightly more tolerable 150 minutes, it was almost as MOR as Broken Embraces. It has more going for it in some respects, but it could also be the more facile of the two, crammed as it is with what we are presumably expected to accept as the epitome of modern cinematic cool. With a calculated choice of actors (Mathieu Amalric is surely one of the most indulged in French cinema); a pretentious, deliberately eclectic choice of music; direct-to-camera monologues that are as specious as they are irrelevant; and self-satisfied posturing on virtually every level, superficial attractiveness characterises A Christmas Tale to a tee.

It didn’t help that this big-film-with-little-ideas was shown alongside more satisfying films about familial dysfunction, particularly Kore-eda’s Still Walking (a more poetic and aesthetically satisfying film about a family scarred by the death of a child) and Assayas’ Summer Hours (a more effective study on the consequences of subordinating humanitarian values with economic and/or political ones). A Christmas Tale has a few interesting ideas, but they aren’t really given seriously attention. One of the best comes late in the film when Élizabeth (Anne Consigny) tells her father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) that she suffers from perpetual sadness. He responds by reading a passage from Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ about the divergence between altruistic aspiration and fundamental selfishness (read against shots of urban decay). Getting to that point took more than two hours, after which the film continued to flitter along to its modest conclusion. The real value of the film might be as an encapsulation of the narcissistic meaning behind the Nietzsche quote. Was this intentional, or is the film merely a bourgeois entertainment? Given the critical acclaim for Desplechin and his work, I’d like to think it could be both, but I suspect the latter. However, should I be proved wrong, I will gladly applaud Desplechin as a most subtle iconoclast and become a steadfast fan.


‘Disgrace’

Steve Jacob’s Disgrace begins with professor David Lurie (John Malkovich) being dismissed from a Cape Town university for sexual impropriety. He decides to visit his daughter Lucy (nicely played by Jessica Haines) in a remote part of the South African Eastern Cape. Recently separated from her lesbian partner, Lucy survives by growing and selling flowers with the help of Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), a black man who bought some of Lucy’s land with grant money and is building a house nearby. Lucy and Petrus embody the new social order in South Africa. Disgrace is about Lurie coming to terms with his ingrained colonialism, and the reality of living in the post-apartheid era.

There is nothing especially poetic about Jacob’s adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s prize-winning novel, but I’ve been told that it faithfully conveys it’s political complexities. All well and good, but does it work as a film? Most people would probably think so, and I agree to a point, but (as I see it) it suffers from the same constraints that compromised Teza and Firaaq (see Politics and other Predicaments). Even Malkovich has said that, “people in life are much more complicated than movies allow.” The key word of course is ‘allow’. Who allows or doesn’t allow it? Well, it’s ‘us’, or more to the point, that broad entity known (especially to film producers) as ‘the commercial audience’.

I touched on this in the Mid-Festival Report when talking about the limitations some filmmakers are forced to deal with when tackling political subject matter, essentially having to ensure they don’t alienate ‘us’. This can result in overtly audience-friendly films, occasionally to the point of condescension. But of course, it can be avoided. For example, the Inuit drama, Before Tomorrow is a lovely melding of the poetic and the political. Form and content are tightly in sync, enabling the formal attributes of the work to speak with as much political conviction as the ideas implicit in the drama. The pressure on filmmakers to bend to commercial imperatives can be seen as a form of expansionism, so to resist the dictates of a market-driven mindset is to confront a very pervasive form of oppression. The filmmakers of Before Tomorrow managed to avoid the dilution of artistry and meaning, and created a moving and thoughtful film free of overemphatic appeals to sentimentality and emotionalism. It stands as a lesson on how it can be done, although whether it satisfies investors is quite a different kettle of fish.

The thing is, everyone thinks they know what a good film is. The fact that virtually no one came to the Edward Yang retrospective last year indicates that ‘good’ cinema is a subjective notion at best, perhaps even an irrelevant one. Even cinephiles can struggle with demanding cinema. It was disheartening to hear film-buffs sniff at the “long-take indulgence” of Albert Serra while expressing admiration for Disgrace. Not that Jacob’s film is bad, but it simply doesn’t orbit the same sun as Birdsong. Nor does it pretend to. Disgrace is a movie with a message.

John Malkovich gets his fair share of flack, often deservedly so – he can be bad. He can be very bad, but often he’s simply miscast or indulged, usually the latter. In Disgrace, he’s miscast and indulged. All it would have taken to better integrate him into the film would have been to change Lurie’s sexual proclivity, providing a much more convincing context for Malkovich’s unchecked mincing. No, all he had to do was play it straight. Maybe Jacob convinced himself that the performance brought added decadence to Lurie’s character. Perhaps, but there was at least one scene where it was effective, when Lurie returns to Cape Town to apologise to the parents of a black student he beds early in the film, a strange and unsettling scene that nearly doesn’t work, but somehow does. For the most part, Malkovich embodies the lingering vestiges of habitual privilege convincingly, even if he does skate close to caricature at times and risks overemphasising the already-blatant metaphor his character inhabits. In the end, there’s something begrudging about the concessions made by the central white protagonists, and while the message about the necessity of adapting to changes in the social order is sincere, ultimately it felt tokenistic to me.


‘Jerichow’

Another film that didn’t quite live up to expectations (although again, it wasn’t a bad film by any means) was Christian Petzold’s Jerichow. I was impressed with Petzold’s first film, The State I Am In (2000), but his subsequent films haven’t quite convinced. It’s hard to say why. Some have criticised his clinical coolness, his tendency to observe emotions rather than evoke them (as A. O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review), but I have no problem with observational understatement – in fact, I prefer it. Petzold’s films have interesting premises and an equally appealing visual style (prompting comparisons with early Wenders and Fassbinder), but they don’t have enough subtext. Jerichow is a good example. Given the history of German racism against the Turks, this reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice looked set to twist the familiar tale into a Haneke-like dissection of lingering fascism, but Petzold sidesteps that potentially didactic route in favour of a modest commentary on venality, albeit one with decidedly Teutonic overtones.

None of the characters in this tightly directed chamber-piece are especially attractive, but the most empathetic attention is given to the sometimes brutish, heavy-drinking Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish immigrant who owns a successful chain of snack bars in the Jerichow area of former East Germany. Ali is married to Laura (Nina Hoss, who played the lead in Yella), but their marriage isn’t happy. He hires Thomas (Brenno Fürmann), a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, as his driver/assistant. Laura seduces Thomas and the familiar Postman scenario kicks in, with a twist predicated on empathy for Ali and a soft attack on racist privilege (embodied by Laura and Thomas). Actually, the film is less about racism and more about enmity. For me, Jerichow is too passive, but it does successfully convey the economic and emotional void of present-day Germany. However, with a narrative premise this familiar, one expects more.

I also expected more from Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop. It gave me a few laughs, but like most of the humour in this coked-up comedy, they were largely predicated on verbal abuse – elaborately composed torrents of spitting verbiage invariably employed at someone’s expense. Ha ha. God knows Anglo-American politics over the last decade has been a dead-sitter for satire, especially the deceptive if not criminal rhetoric that led to the invasion of Iraq, but this over-hyped comedy skirts the issue by revelling in the polluted world of political spin-doctoring. As a jaundiced take on backstabbing functionaries tearing each other’s withered hearts out, I guess it reflects something of the character of the ideology that currently leads the world around by the nose, but I’m surprised that many people consider this constant barrage of insult and profanity to be the cutting-edge of comedy. I haven’t seen The Thick of It (the British TV satire the film is based on), so I can only presume that as television it works. Still, The Office it ain’t, and as an updated riff on Yes, Minister, it lacks comparable wit and perception. Nor could any one seriously call the film political, despite its setting. In the Loop tells us nothing we don’t already know about the scoundrels who presume to lead us, and yet most reviewers can’t shout its praises loudly enough. Some have even tried to liken it to Dr. Strangelove – go figure.

One thing In the Loop has in common with the other films I’ve mentioned is that they are all likely to seem stronger outside of the festival, when not in such close proximity to the truly great films of the season. I’m aware that many will rate the Desplechin as one of the 2009 highlights, and some will argue that the others should be appreciated for what they are rather than what they’re not, but for me, the New Zealand International Film Festival is a time for cinematic discovery and celebration, not for sitting through glorified television. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these films are bad or don’t belong in the festival, but beside the restrained quality of Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Albert Serra’s Birdsong, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain and the sheer class of Alexei German Jr’s Paper Soldier, they are diversions.


‘Paper Soldier’

If the dishes served up by Almodóvar and the like are essentially well-cooked fast food within a tradition of eateries as varied and familiar as Hollywood melodrama of the 40s to Brian De Palma, Francois Truffaut, Wes Anderson and pungent British TV comedy, German’s Paper Soldier is Michelin-star fine-dining, with flavours and textures set to linger on the palette for years. Of all the films I saw at this year’s festival, Paper Soldier shines most brightly. This extraordinary film may be the best directed of the festival, notable for the skill and perception with which German references East-European cinema of the 60s, and for the choreography of his exquisite tracking shots. The film is a banquet for connoisseurs of European cinema – and it’s funny too. That said, the humour is as dry as a Kazakhstan steppe, and every chuckle is aimed at the Russian/Eastern Bloc intelligentsia of the day, for failing to affect any significant influence beyond their self-contained enclaves. It depicts an impotent intelligentsia, less persecuted than robbed of faith in their efficacy. Self-doubt and fear are as palpable as the cold, forbidding climate and featureless landscape of the Soviet launch site; the bleached sensuality of the turquoise and gold colour palette; and the gorgeous use narrow focus – devices that underscore German’s subtle thematic and allegorical intentions.

It has been billed as the Russian Right Stuff, a misleading description not unlike the claim that Tarkovsky’s Solaris was the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s not as shy of the mark as it seems. Just as Philip Kaufman’s film takes a decidedly American approach to its subject matter, Paper Soldier is consistent with the introspective style of Russian and East European cinema of the day, reminiscent of Tarkovsky, Miratova, Jansco, Makk, Jires, Nemec, Wajda and the like, all evident in the rich mise-en-scčne and beautifully textural sound design. The recreation of 60s post-syncing is masterful, and the subtle use of period music perfectly evokes the era. Subliminal drones and noises suggest a surreal, dreamlike limbo, a kind of time warp in which the characters perpetually inhabit the past. Hallucinations, dreams, memory and time-shifts (familiar devices in films of the period) are handled with seamless subtlety, coating everything in a surreal ‘otherness’. In this respect, the film can be read as a comment on cinema, all the more so given that Paper Soldier is something of a throwback, but a deliberate and deeply satisfying one.

The recurring appearance of a camel (an animal jokingly described as the result of creation by committee) could be a subtle dig at the Soviet system. The title is from a song about a soldier who voluntarily steps into a fire not realising he’s really made of paper, a perfect metaphor not only for the situation facing the astronauts, but for the nation. It might also reflect the nature of the central character. Dr Danya Pokrovsky believes in a world where ‘science and art are not for sale’, and encourages the young cosmonauts in his care to ‘serve country and mankind above oneself’. Haunted by his parent’s incarceration and death under Stalin, Danya smells burning flesh everywhere. As illness steadily creeps up on him, his conscience becomes increasingly burdensome. At a reunion 10 years after the launch, the men drink while women talk about curtains.

Like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, Paper Soldier gives potent expression to the notion that the personal is the political, but above all, this poetic and philosophical meditation is outstanding on purely cinematic terms. It’s a fabulous piece of work. I’m tempted to say more about it, but it should be seen more than talked about – and then seen again, and again. If you missed it, do whatever you can to track it down.

There are a few more films to consider – Dogtooth, 24 City, Serbis, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, Double Take, the infamous Antichrist and one or two others – but they’ll have to wait till the next (and last) report – soon...

See also:
» Post-Festival Report 2009 (Part 1): Poetry and Poetics
» Mid-Festival Report: Politics and other Predicaments




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