Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Comfort of Strangers | Paul Schrader, 1990

Two lovers on holiday in Venice stop and ask a local to take their photo. The couple smile, and the picture is taken. But the angles don't match. Unbeknownst to them, the couple are being watched. This moment of romantic togetherness has been corrupted. It's not just theirs anymore. Somebody stole it. By setting up one thing and showing us another, Schrader links romance and voyeurism together. An invasion of privacy makes them objects of desire, something to covet, to possess. And they don't even know it's happened.
LFF 2016 | #5

The past and the present are not mutually exclusive. We all have memories of time shared with people we love, people we have loved, people we will always love. Our memories are who we are. They’re proof that we exist. And we have lives. We love, we work, we eat, drink, talk, spend time. We move towards the unknown of our future. We live. But what happens when all we can see is the past, our memories of the people and places that no longer have a future? How do we live our lives without them? Such questions are posed in three superb films I saw at the London Film Festival, all of which explore the past’s hold over us in profoundly different ways.

First off: Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Opening in Recife in the 1980s before jumping ahead to the present day, Aquarius follows Clara, a retired music critic, as she fights to keep her home out of the hands of bullish property developers. Having bought out every other resident of the titular apartment complex, these developers plan to demolish the building and rebuild the “New Aquarius”, a modern and luxurious living space, in its place. But they need Clara to leave so they can start work. They can’t evict her. She owns her apartment, so as long as she stays they can’t do a thing but try to force her to go. And the deal they offer her is a good one: a lot more than the asking price. But for Clara, this isn’t about money. This is her home. She raised her children here with her late husband. She beat breast cancer here. Her family have been here for decades. She can’t just leave, knowing that the physical space her memories are tied to will be destroyed if she goes. She’s holding on to the past because it’s hers to hold on to. It’s an act of preservation. Like how she defends digital music in spite of her love of vinyl. The resonance of a song is not lost because it’s heard as a file on an iPod. At least it’s the same music. But tearing down a building and replacing it with a new one is a cover version. It might exist in the same place, with the same name, but its soul will be lost, leaving nothing but a hole filled with money in a city where life used to be.

Mendonça steeps Clara’s life in history: a John Lennon LP she bought second hand in Brazil mysteriously contains a clipping of an LA Times profile of Lennon conducted shortly before his death; a chest of drawers, repeatedly observed, is closely associated with memories of her beloved late aunt, who owned it as a young woman; the bookshelves of her apartment are stacked with photographs and photo albums; even the scars from her mastectomy serve as a daily reminder of her cancer battle. This is richly detailed, perhaps even novelistic filmmaking. Mendonça takes the time to create a vivid sense of Clara’s life by zooming in on the details that make it real, that make it important, beautiful, essential. And life is meaningless without its history. If our past is taken away from us, destroyed and rebuilt in the name of a future that’s leaving us behind, how do we know that we even lived at all?

“I need more from you.” These words said to a gushing tap cut to the heart of Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, a beguiling ghost movie in which Maureen, an American spirit medium working as personal shopper to an elusive socialite in Paris, searches for a promised sign of (after)life from her dead twin brother. She spends her days riding around the city on a moped collecting clothes and jewellery from designer boutiques, and her nights drawing, reading, teaching herself about art, and talking to her boyfriend on Skype as she sits alone in her tiny apartment. He wants her to join him in Oman. She hates her job, and being in Paris. There’s nothing keeping her here but her memories of her brother. But she feels obliged to stay until he gives her a sign: a ghostly encounter, a tap inexplicably gushing water, a glass smashing on its own; unexplained noises, scratched crosses appearing on walls. And then she receives a barrage of mysterious and insistent text messages from an unknown number. Is this the sign she’s in Paris waiting for?

Maybe. And that’s exactly the point. She wants to believe, so she does. She’s waiting. And when you wait, you look at everything with the expectation that something is about to happen, something to justify all this lost time. Maureen needs something from her brother so she chooses to believe that he’s speaking to her, somewhat reluctantly following the instructions of the bizarre messages in spite of all corporeal logic. But then anything can be explained rationally. A glass smashing on the floor with no apparent stimulus could’ve been caught in an unnoticed gust of wind, or maybe it was placed precariously on the edge of a table. And these texts could be an elaborate practical joke, or part of something more cynical. But they might also not be. Assayas, to his credit, never really clarifies any of this. He’s happy to let Maureen exist in a world of grey in which there are no definites. Even communication is increasingly shrouded in mystery: face-to-face meetings become lo-res Skype conversations; handwritten notes become text messages from unknown numbers; IRL becomes URL. Maureen is always connected to the world and always alone in it. Glued to her phone and stuck in a city that isn’t her home, Maureen’s physical connections are all a distant part of her past. It makes sense, then, that she chooses to believe in ghosts. That she asks questions to empty rooms, hoping for an answer to fill the silence. What else is there to do in a digital world but look for signs of life.

In Marco Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams, Massimo, a successful journalist, returns to his childhood home to sort through the possessions of his mother, who died when he was young. It’s 1999 in Turin, and the looming presence of the abandoned Stadio Comunale, the former home of both Juventus and Torino FC, looms large through the window. In his youth, this stadium roared as his beloved Torino played. He gave spirited mock-commentaries from the balcony. The team photos (still) adorn his childhood bedroom wall. But the place that ignited his life is now overgrown and rotting. In 2006, the stadium was renovated and Torino FC returned. Bad situations can have silver linings, but this isn’t 2006. It’s 1999. The positives haven’t been drawn yet. There’s just crumbling concrete, wasted ground. Lost history.

Of course, the same can be said of Massimo’s lost relationship with his mother, the woman who encouraged him to dance around the living room with her, who watched scary movies with him in the middle of the night, who snuck into his room as he slept to wish him “sweet dreams”. He was never told how she really died. His whole life is built around her unfathomable absence. Bellocchio jumps backwards and forwards around Massimo’s life to remove any sense of it as a linearly experienced thing, instead viewing everything through the prism of his memories of his mother. She’s a ghost, haunting every second of his life, in whatever order it’s experienced. His rise to prominence as a journalist; his time at school; his blossoming romance with a doctor; his troubled relationship with his father. She’s there, even if only peripherally. Hopeful and unreciprocated glances up at a row of mothers cheering his classmates through a swimming lesson; reluctant-then-uncontrollable dancing to The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird; breathlessly watching as his girlfriend jumps from a ten metre diving board. All moments implicitly loaded with the grief and confusion of having lost his mother. “Let her go,” Massimo’s girlfriend tells him one night, before Bellocchio jumps back once more to his childhood. He and his mother are playing hide and seek. Massimo looks and looks but can’t find her — she’s in a cardboard box in a dark cupboard, but Massimo looks right past her. Panicked and crying out for his mother, she finally rushes from the cupboard to comfort him, inviting him back to her hiding place. They sit in the dark, away from the world, alone together and happy. Nothing lost is gone forever. Memories, good or bad, are always beautiful, so how could we let them go? They’re proof that we’re alive.

Friday, 21 October 2016

LFF 2016 | #4

A print of Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac hangs on the royal blue walls of a teenage boy’s bedroom in Eugene Green’s The Son of Joseph. In the film, Vincent, the aforementioned teenager, tries to find his long-absent father, a man he has has never met and who his mother refuses to discuss. At various points, Green isolates specific characters in the painting in close-up as Vincent sits in his room: Isaac, the innocent victim; Abraham, the unquestioning servant of God; an angel, the divine intervention; and a ram, the replacement sacrifice. The progression of The Son of Joseph echoes the narrative of this story; Green ties it all to the painting.

Monday, 17 October 2016

LFF 2016 | #3

Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama is a film of facades. Faceless mannequins draped in designer clothes alongside floor-to-ceiling mirrors; a teenager passionately miming along to Shirley Bassey’s cover of Frank Sinatra’s My Way, itself a reworking of a French song; an expensive bathtub not connected to running water, filled via multiple journeys to a bathroom with a bucket; a toy gun brandished like a real one; all found within the labyrinth of a designer shopping centre in Paris after dark. These are kids playing as adults, and this is the planetarium in Rebel Without a Cause. They revel in the freedom of their prison until they have no choice but to take responsibility for their actions. “We did what we had to do,” one of the kids postures. A boy changes out of his clothes and into an ill-fitting designer suit. A censored version of Chief Keef’s I Don’t Like blares from the speakers.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

LFF 2016 | #2

Nobody makes documentaries quite like Ulrich Seidl, and his latest work, Safari, following European tourists as they embark on a hunting holiday in Africa, is typically idiosyncratic. Interviews are intricately framed, symmetrical, harshly lit and distant, focusing more on the space than the subject, on the things they surround themselves with, barely even resembling interviews at all. People speak freely, never alone in the frame, using each other as prompts to further the conversation, surrogates for the silent interviewer. They speak of their passion for hunting, discussing beautiful animals, Africa, guns. One hunter describes his ideal trophy as a zebra because its hide is so beautiful, while another dreams of killing an elephant because of its “dimensions”.

And yes, these animals are, of course, beautiful. But the logic of beauty being the drive for these people to kill doesn’t really fit. There has to be something more than that. Seidl follows the hunters as they ride around the reserve, observing them as they stalk their prey. And then the reason for this killing becomes clear: firing these guns is an exhilaration. The power they have in these moments, maybe not even to kill something but simply to generate the deafening sound of a gunshot, is everything to them. It's visceral. It's a rush. The animals are just something interesting to aim at, like taking a picture of a loved one holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa to justify buying a camera. They get nothing but a picture to remember the feeling, and they never see the animal again. They just go back to their comfortable lives, knowing they've killed something beautiful. But away from the tourists, workers from a nearby village skin and gut the day’s kills, stripping them of anything that can be sold: meat, bones, the beautiful hides. Seidl never looks away as the men go to work, slowly, methodically, brutally dismembering the corpse of a giraffe. This bloody, destructive scene is the end product of the hunt, and the hunters aren't even around to see it. Do they even know this is happening? Does it even cross their minds? They got a picture for their Facebook, so what else is there to care about? The real horror of Safari is the blind eye turned to ugliness in the pursuit of beauty.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

LFF 2016 | #1

As it always does, my London Film Festival started at home. Sixty miles from London, watching movies on low-res streams to get a jump on an unmanageably crowded programme. This is a necessary inconvenience. Festivals are, in my limited experience, designed as a way of consuming cinema rather than appreciating it, and it’s easy to get swept away in the tide of it all. Missing something is the end of the world, so you have to see everything. But that leaves no time to reflect. Only time to grab a coffee, to stand in a queue, to wait for the next thing. No wonder Twitter is unbearable during festivals. So a head start off the clock, while far from ideal, certainly has its upsides. There’s no rush. No schedule. Just a few movies and the time to digest them. Perfect.

And time benefits most things, but particularly things that lack, by design, the dazzling immediacy that rapid consumption demands. A film like A Woman’s Life, for example, the newest work from writer/director Stéphane Brizé. A change of scenery, at least, from his previous film, the brooding The Measure of a Man, A Woman’s Life sees Brizé in similarly restrained form, minimising the dramatics of Guy de Maupassant’s era-spanning source novel to instead focus on how its tumultuous events slowly destroy the life of Jeanne, the young woman at its heart. Abused, manipulated and exploited by the men in her life, the once unshakably vibrant Jeanne, who’d find beauty in the world wherever she looked for it, is slowly crushed into bitterness and loneliness, leaving her with nothing but broken promises and tainted memories. Tainted because they used not to be. She was loved. There was happiness in her life for a while. But now, as she looks back, that happiness is nowhere to be found. The bright, beautiful gardens in which she spent her youth are now unkempt and unloved, distantly observed through the rain-flecked windows of cold, stone-walled rooms. There’s no life there anymore — but gardens can grow again. Like The Measure of a Man, A Woman’s Life sees Brizé preoccupied with a world that delivers nothing but pain and disappoint while continually offering glimmers of hope. Letters promising the world in exchange for more money, an “eloquent” apology soon and inevitably proven to be insincere. “Everybody lies,” Jeanne says, finally. “I expected something else.” She’s still looking for beauty in the world. It’s just becoming harder and harder to find it.

Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love pulls at a similar thread, as four women search fruitlessly for individual freedom in the wake of Poland’s shift from communist rule to democratic government in the early 1990s. Set within the confines of a panopticonic concrete town and almost totally devoid of colour, this is a repressive vision of Poland, still coping with and transitioning away from the seismic political turmoil of the previous decades. The people of this gloomy town have aged with these politics. Communism is all they know, and it isn’t something easily shed. This passive unwillingness creates frustration, desperation, pain. Things should be better now but they’re not. A housewife is trapped in an emotionless marriage and attracted to a young priest; a headmistress engages in an unbalanced affair with a married doctor; a retired teacher is unrequitedly in love with her young neighbour, a dancer who feels destined for something bigger. These are not fulfilling lives. Each of these women long for a love that’s forever out of reach, doomed by false promises, emotional distance, and acts of violence, chewed up and spat out by a country struggling to free itself from its nightmarish past. They want something more. They want to live. Everyone else just wants to exist.

In Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa, existence is everything. Struggling to make ends meet in an overcrowded neighbourhood of Manila, matriarch Rosa and her addict husband sell drugs from their small convenience store to feed their four children. Nobody seems to have any money in this part of town, or, at least, people aren’t willing to part with it — even the supermarket doesn’t have enough coins to give customers the right change. But transactions are essential. We need to pay for things: food, clothing, shelter; everything. It’s a catch-22: nobody wants to spend money, so nobody can make any money. No wonder people are lured into taking shortcuts, justifiable as a single-minded means for survival, but wholly destructive in every other sense. But it’s the only way to sustain life in this place. It’s the only way Rosa can feed her children. And when that option is removed by a corrupt and opportunistic police force, whose livelihoods are based on exploiting the desperate for money and information that will lead to more money, a police force which describes the severity of Rosa’s crime as “a no-bailer”, then what? There's nowhere to go. Ma’Rosa is an ugly, desperate picture of the Philippines as it exists today. There’s no life here. Just a dead town filled with dying people, pit against each other to stay alive.