August 20, 2017

Ten from the festival

Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017). The mood of the times? I was reading Jonathan Taplin’s book about why we should be afraid of the internet, Move Fast and Break Things, during the second week of the New Zealand International Film Festival and this sentence jumped out as a potential summary of several films, including Happy End: “In his seminal 1976 work, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell contended that modern capitalism creates a culture of such self-gratification and narcissism that it may end up causing its own destruction.” There was a persistent theme of disgust running through the European films from Cannes this year, which aligned with European anxieties about inequality, elitism and indifference refugees appeared in glitzy French dining rooms, beggars slept rough on the streets of Stockholm and Syrian asylum seekers showed up in Helsinki. It obviously made the festival topical in a way I had never noticed before, but attacks on bourgeois comfort, liberal contradictions and hypocrisy have been core business for Michael Haneke since at least the late 1980s. This also means that Happy End, which revisits the social satire of the (more topical than ever) 2005 film Cache/Hidden and earlier films like Funny Games and Code Unknown, is a step back of sorts from the career peaks Amour and The White Ribbon. Compared to those two films, Happy End feels like minor Haneke, but you can also appreciate the way he plays around effortlessly with the satire of his earlier films, where the family is shown to be the corrupt microcosm of society and it takes a rebellious child or two to reveal the horrible truth. I always enjoy Haneke as a stern, disapproving moralist and he is funnier here than he has been in years.
Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2017). Epic Russian sorrow. In Zvyagintsev films, the apocalypse is terrifyingly sad and beautifully staged. You can think of this one as a sombre and hypnotic monument to selfishness and indifference. In the west, we look to Zvyagintsev to tell us important things about Russia; the strong sense of mystery he likes to generate tells us he is conscious of that role. But I wonder how his films are viewed in Russia, or are they essays made for export?

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017). Another European moralist presents a scathing black comedy, this time in the comfortable suburbs of an American city. As much as I enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s atmospheric remake of The Beguiled, I would say that if you are only planning to see one pairing of Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman in 2017, make it this genuinely creepy art-horror about a family plagued by – again, Haneke-like – guilt and repression. Sometimes the horror feels Kubrickian – high and low camera angles, music by Ligeti – and sometimes you get the dread of films like The Omen and The Amityville Horror. Other things I did not expect to see in 2017 include the return of Alicia Silverstone.
The Square (Ruben Ostlund, 2017). A critic at Cannes joked that if Loveless had not been called Loveless, then Happy End could have used the title. The same applies to The Square, which won the big prize. There is a nihilism at the core of this overlong and sometimes inconsistent art-world satire that is largely disguised by a pleasant comic tone. You could say that it is broadly about art’s failure to be effective as social criticism within a rarefied social bubble (all opening nights, fundraising dinners and black-tie events) but is the film doing the same thing, and if so, does that make it somehow both impotent and self-satisfied, or is it simply proving its own point? As in a Haneke film – he really has become the presiding spirit, hasn’t he? – a comfortably-off figure is attacked by the social forces he provokes or patronises.

The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismaki, 2017). Kaurismaki’s refugee film is smaller in scale and less self-important than the likes of The Square and Loveless, and its droll humour and carefully curated world should be attractive to fans of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, but some of us can remember when Kaurismaki films didn’t restore our faith in humanity. Has the world changed or has he changed? Either way, I loved it.  

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016). As though Lady Chatterley’s Lover could turn homicidal and be restaged as a Victorian noir – which is the category hastily invented by critics for this engrossing low-budget film that has little overlap with Shakespeare’s play other than one important line of dialogue. The source is a Russian novel relocated to the north of England in the 1860s, making it roughly contemporary with The Beguiled, with which it has a fair bit in common. The source novel has apparently been denuded of Russian supernatural elements although traces of that spirit remain. Florence Pugh is suitably evil in the lead.
Human Traces (Nic Gorman, 2017). This mostly impressive debut is a writer’s film that presents a tricky structure, offering three perspectives on the same events, which unfold on a fictional Sub-Antarctic island (the appropriately bleak, windswept locations were on Banks Peninsula and in the Catlins). As Gorman told an appreciative audience at its world premiere in Christchurch, Bergman films were an influence. He didn’t say which ones but I imagine he meant movies like Shame and Hour of the Wolf (remote islands, Max Von Sydow and/or Liv Ullmann going mad). More than anything, Human Traces is a feat of editing and continuity under very difficult circumstances (Richard Shaw edited, John Christoffels shot) and while the stories do weave together in the third part, it is hard to say whether the ending truly makes psychological sense. But then again, you could argue that Gorman’s models (Bergman, possibly Von Trier and possibly Dead Calm) didn’t always, either.

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). The lasting but obvious gag is that like the Zone itself, Stalker seems to be different every time you step into it – a theory I tested by going twice. You have to be in the same room without distractions, you have to endure its long stretches of time. You have to walk in circles alongside these guys, drink at that oily, sepia bar in that ruined town. You have to make the trip. After the second screening, late on a Thursday night, the fog outside was thick and low, turning all the roads home into dark tunnels. 
Bill Direen: A Memory of Others (Simon Oggston, 2017). The fog from Stalker seemed to have settled on the Otago town of Middlemarch where Direen, poet and singer, emerged out of the fog like a figure from history. The world of the film is mostly the world of the 1930s to the 1960s, populated by surrealists and literary modernists, Janet Frame and James K Baxter and the first Labour government, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, even as it unfolds on a short New Zealand tour/road trip in the year 2016. Direen is a unique figure who does not appear to have fit comfortably into any of the scenes he worked in or near, and there was something strangely moving about the film that I struggled to identify. I suspect there is a story somewhere beneath this one, which we glimpse at times, and it is about how we turn ourselves into the people we are and what the cost or effort of that might be. The film is intelligently and sensitively put together and Oggston largely avoids the talking-heads-and-historical-clips format that plagues typical rock docos. But then, Direen isn’t a typical rock subject.

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017). This sad and beautiful film was the revelation of the fortnight. A small and personal project for David Lowery, apparently made in secret with actors Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, it has big things to say about time, transience and memory – often without words, and almost always with its lead character disguised under a sheet with eyeholes, like a kid’s drawing of a ghost or a Halloween costume. People are talking about Terrence Malick and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and those are very good precedents, but Lowery has hit on a style that is completely his own. They say that time is both the subject and the raw material of cinema – this film shows how and why.