Another Opening, Another Show

In Joe Dante’s satirical Small Soldiers (1998), a range of high-tech action figures is marketed under the slogan “Everything Else Is Just a Toy.” Perhaps this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival should have used a similar line: “Everything Else Is Just a Movie.” In his final year as festival director, Richard Moore seemed intent on going out with a bang, or as many bangs as possible, as if cinema had already ended and we were waiting for the Next Big Thing to take its place. There were drive-in double features, IMAX presentations, screenings of Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud) in 3D for the kids, experimental light shows at the Melbourne Planetarium, a 50th-anniversary revival of Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) at the Town Hall with Bernard Herrmann’s score performed live by the Norman Bates Orchestra…

It seemed especially apt that MIFF should devote a retrospective to Dante, a true “vulgar modernist” consistently fascinated with images that bust out into the real world: little monsters taking over the projector booth in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), a tank crashing through a screen in The Second Civil War (1997), the ultimate special effect prompting the audience to flee the cinema in Matinee (1993). Expertly curated by Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, the Dante program represented the most successful fusion of MIFF’s populist and avant-garde impulses; at worst, the festival seemed masterminded by an overreaching entrepreneur like the eager-beaver billionaire played by John Glover in Gremlins 2, whose idea of progress entails sponsoring an updated version of Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) “in colour, with a happier ending.”

Certainly there was no excuse for the worse-than-usual MIFF trailer aired before every session, bizarrely equating auteurs with warring snack foods duking it out in a back alley; it’s hard to fathom what neurosis compels the festival to trumpet its lack of cultural snobbery so insistently to viewers who have already paid for their seats. The same resources might have been better used to finance a catalogue with actual critical essays justifying and contextualising the various programming strands; it was possible in the 1990s, when I started attending MIFF, and ought to be so again.

Speaking of poor decisions, aside from a desire to get a gaggle of local TV stars onto the red carpet, I’m not sure what could have justified opening the festival with The Wedding Party (Amanda Jane), a noxious romantic comedy that managed to be at once bland, uncomfortable (an ill-judged scene at a bondage club) and vaguely racist (the non-Australian characters vanish instantly once their narrative purpose ends). On my list of MIFF lowlights, this ranked right alongside Dreamland, a career-killing letdown from the once-touted Australian director Ivan Sen: filmed in the vicinity of Nevada’s Area 51, this fatally tasteful would-be head movie urgently needed a shot of Dante-style anarchy to bring it to life.

MIFF madly tries to have things all ways at once, to be seen as highbrow and lowbrow, adventurous and accessible, glamorous and tacky. Perhaps the lack of a secure internal identity explains the inadequate response when a scheduled screening of Bruce LaBruce’s L.A. Zombie was vetoed by Australian censors. Notwithstanding the absurdity of supposing MIFF to be catering to the gay necrophiliac market, no-one seemed willing to step up and explain why the film had been programmed in the first place: for its midnight-movie shock value, or as a serious work of art? Outside of MIFF, L.A. Zombie’s illegal Australian premiere some weeks later was greeted with an enthusiastic crowd response but tepid reviews; I was out of the country, and so can’t comment.

All the same, I was grateful for the generosity and abundance of the MIFF program, which included a number of films that qualified as “events” simply by lasting three hours or more: introducing his four-and-a-half hour The Movie Orgy (1968), Dante quipped that getting through to the end might be seen as a bonding ritual, “like being trapped in a submarine.” It’s a suggestive metaphor for the communal yet isolating festival experience, where the most valuable encounters take place away from the hubbub, down in the depths.

The American Vein

Aside from his personal appearances at MIFF, Dante turned up as a talking head in two cinephilic documentaries with exclamatory titles: Jeffery Schwarz’s Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007) and Mark Hartley’s Machete Maidens Unleashed! Castle, of course, was the original low-rent “expanded cinema” pioneer, a poor man’s Hitchcock famed for stunts such as attaching electric buzzers to seats during screenings of The Tingler (1959). As told by Schwarz, it’s a sad story in a way, a portrait of a lovable ham whose dependence on gimmicks prevented him realising himself as an artist: his career is book-ended by two dream projects he eventually handed over to others, Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) and The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1946). Perhaps it’s enough that his boyish glee inspired a generation of little devils like Dante, who used a thinly disguised version of Castle, played by John Goodman, as a central character in Matinee. MIFF missed a trick by not screening at least one Castle feature – who wouldn’t want to see ghosts flying overhead through the Forum Theatre? Maybe next year.

Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a slightly more dubious proposition. While Hartley turned “Ozploitation” into a buzzword with his recent cinephilic documentary Not Quite Hollywood (2008), this follow-up focuses on “exploitation” in a more literal sense: in the 1970s, the famously cost-conscious Roger Corman led the charge towards the Philippines as a cheap location for action and horror B-movies, with dictator Ferdinand Marcos more than willing to lend on-the-ground support. In his boyish enthusiasm for no-holds-barred “trash”, Hartley goes to edge of a genuine ethical quandary – but politically the film hedges its bets, celebrating the gung-ho spirit of the era even as it draws attention to the real horrors offscreen. Due tribute is paid to the Filipino directors who got their start with Corman (Eddie Romero, Cirio H. Santiago), but it would be interesting to hear more about how the US invasion affected an industry that was already producing hundreds of titles annually for the local market. Still, Hartley has few rivals when it comes to revving up interview subjects and matching their snappy one-liners with appropriately lurid clips.

Relatively meagre rewards were offered by a third clip-based documentary, Celine Danhier’s Blank City, devoted to the “No Wave” cinema emanating from New York in the late 1970s and early ’80s – a kind of companion piece to Scott Crary’s Kill Your Idols (2004), which focused on the associated post-punk musical movement and its heirs. For those not already primed to hear Lydia Lunch, Richard Kern et al recall the joys of being young, strung-out and disaffected, there’s a willful quality to much of this self-mythologising, aligned to a note of generational defiance that in some cases seems prompted by regret at arriving too late to make the scene at Warhol’s Factory. Emphasis is placed on the high-minded, anti-commercial spirit of the movement – but listening to Nick Zedd explain why his not-for-profit “Cinema of Transgression” should be ranked above grungy exploitation flicks of the same era, I could only wish that Danhier had persuaded Abel Ferrara to offer a rebuttal.

The gentler path since taken by US independent cinema was exemplified by Beeswax, the latest from “mumblecore” director Andrew Bujalski, whose supposed hyper-naturalism grows more stylised every time out. This look at the everyday lives of hipsters in Austin, Texas generates an odd brand of suspense from the assumption that making small talk is the hardest work around: every exchange has the quality of a delicate, tense negotiation. Bujalski gives us two of his strongest heroines in Lauren and Jeannie, a pair of “intelligent, confident young women” (the scare quotes seem obligatory) played by real-life twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher. Power struggles abound in this deceptively cosy film, the best showcase yet for Bujalski’s unique approach to dialogue: linguistic virtuosos one and all, his characters have no problem instantly reversing the meaning of a phrase such as “hot sex”.

Among the newer American films at MIFF, the most delightful surprise was I Love You Phillip Morris, a first feature directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra: who would have thought the writing team responsible for Cats and Dogs (Lawrence Guterman, 2001) and Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003) would hand Jim Carrey the greatest role of his career? There’s often been a sexually aggressive quality about Carrey in full flight, but none of his previous vehicles can match this bizarre “true story” of a volatile suburban cop whose mid-life crisis launches him out of the closet and into a life of crime; in prison he meets his one true love (Ewan McGregor), a gentle soul who fails to fathom the depth of his new boyfriend’s derangement. Carrey’s go-for-broke physical contortions have never been so explicitly linked to emotional needs, and the movie lets him showcase the range of his gifts as it lurches from farce to tragedy and back again – a Lifetime Channel weepie on crystal meth, Death In Venice retold by Dr Seuss, or at least the maddest biopic of a gay con artist since Colour Me Kubrick (Brian W. Cook, 2005).

The most enduring of American independents, George A. Romero, battled on with Survival of the Dead – a paradoxical title with some personal resonance for a filmmaker who has been chronicling the same zombie invasion for 40-odd years. Loosely following on from his lo-fi Diary of the Dead (2007), Survival has an equally grungy look and the dreamlike atmosphere of a late-night cable broadcast in which a couple of films are jumbled together: a war movie about a group of tough mercenaries and a 1950s-style melodrama about feuding clans on an island off the coast of Delaware (in fact, the entire production was shot in Ontario, with a Canadian cast and crew). Under cover of an established genre, Romero indulges a queer range of impulses: relish in bloodshed, sincere disgust at human nature, a fascination with motives. The predictable explosions of gore come almost as light relief in a generally grim and morally intricate narrative, with the zombies used as cannon fodder in a ideological battle which, as the last shot indicates, shows no signs of letting up. Which brings us back to…

Joe Dante

Filled with assaults that are traumatic as well as pleasurable, Dante’s boundlessly entertaining pop satires deliver a consistent moral message: take responsibility for your creations, for they may come back to bite you. The warning applies above all to the US government, cast as the ultimate author of a range of nightmare scenarios from Piranha (1978), in which American kids are chewed up by mutant fish originally bred to infiltrate North Vietnamese rivers, to Homecoming (2005), in which the reanimated corpses of soldiers killed in Iraq are, very specifically, the creations of the Republican spin doctors assigned to manufacture a fictitious war. Following orders is no excuse, a principle that must apply to filmmakers as well; introducing most of the sessions in person, Dante threw out occasional disclaimers but seemed mainly prepared to stand on his record: “There’s some pretty funny stuff in there.” “I think it holds up.”

In person, Dante was the perfect festival guest: droll, laidback, generous with questioners, an “anecdote machine”, as someone said on Twitter, even if attending all his sessions meant hearing some of his material twice. Many of his stories concerned battles with know-nothing studio chiefs, yet there’s a degree of paradox to his identity as an anarchist functioning more-or-less successfully within the system: a born wiseguy, closer to Bugs Bunny than Daffy Duck, it’s hard to see how he would function without a set of clichés to subvert. His single smash hit, Gremlins (1984), remains probably his best film, an epic trashing of the Disney-Spielberg mentality that still manages to show its monsters happily singing along at a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (David Hand et al, 1937). Somehow, the yearning for a dream America survives the drive to sabotage illusion, the two impulses co-existing on screen as they do in the hearts of the clean-scrubbed 1960s kids in Matinee, a lesser-known masterpiece that holds up Atomic Age monster movies as vital educational experiences for a generation justly suspicious of official wisdom.

If Dante has dedicated his career to reprocessing other people’s material, the most personal of all his films might be The Movie Orgy, a riotous found-footage compilation, originally seven hours long, which he and his associates hauled across college campuses for nearly a decade under the aegis of Schlitz Beer. Even in an abridged version – transferred to DVD from the sole existing print – the Orgy lived up to its billing as an unmissable one-off event, screened to a small band of loyalists in an upstairs cinema at the aptly decrepit Greater Union multiplex, starting about midnight and sending us out onto the pavement, groggy and disbelieving, some time after 4am. This barrage of clips from movies, cartoons, TV serials, ads, quiz shows, instructional films, newsreels and God-knows-what-else generates a strange effect of hectic stasis: no progression, no purpose, no point of view beyond a goggle-eyed dizziness at the weirdness of it all. Each clip seemed nuttier than the last: an adulterous love affair in the shadow of the 50 Foot Woman; Steve Allen as a swinging college professor in College Confidential (Albert Zugsmith, 1960); a string of headache commercials apparently scripted by a terminal depressive; a lachrymose potted biography of the composer of “Silver Hairs Among the Gold” (“Life, indeed, was fading fast away”); Andy Devine bellowing “Jesus Loves You,” accompanied by a Salvation Army band consisting of a cat and a hamster; guest appearances from such friends and well-wishers as Hitchcock, Mighty Mouse, the Beatles, and Groucho Marx; the Bressonian non-acting of an over-age juvenile delinquent (Brett Halsey) in a 1959 item called Speed Crazy, directed by the ineffably named William J. Hole Jr…

A spirit of stoned derision infects everything, helped along by Dante’s trademark sophomoric montage gags (“Those are too big for me,” a small boy complains, supposedly eyeing a pair of breasts in the previous shot) and a formalist fascination with credit sequences that suggests a sensibility perpetually agitated by first principles, baffled by the idea that anyone would wish to advertise a connection with such dreck let alone claim a title as pompous as Assistant Director. By the time The Movie Orgy reaches its climax – actually dozens of climaxes spliced together, like a parody of Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916) – the film has morphed into a convincing indictment of the lunacy of 20th-century American culture, enough to make any outer space visitor steer his flying saucer back to Mars. No need to wonder how Dante thought up the deflating end of Explorers (1985), one of the few regrettable omissions from a nearly comprehensive retrospective. Gremlins 2 does an even better job of updating The Movie Orgy’s pop culture delirium, locating itself in a high-tech skyscraper equipped with a suite of cable TV channels as well as a genetics laboratory known as “Splice O’Life”, presided over by a barking mad Christopher Lee.

The obvious difference between Dante and a full-blown “postmodernist” such as Tim Burton lies in Dante’s more developed historical sense, and it’s startling to realise how many of his films refer implicitly or explicitly to the Vietnam War as a traumatic reference point: the draft looms in the possible future of the hero of Matinee, while the Hitchcock spoof The ’Burbs (1989) has Bruce Dern as a paranoid veteran waging a private military campaign against his freaky neighbours. Less easily assimilated to a progressive worldview, the made-for-cable The Second Civil War, scripted by Martyn Burke, is a satire on identity politics envisaging a near-future US splintered into a million special interest groups, like a sci-fi analogue to Todd Gitlin’s 1995 polemic The Twilight Of Common Dreams: Why American is Wracked by Culture Wars. Dante boasted that the film looks more prescient each time it’s screened – and sure enough, a scene where a political deadline is shifted to make way for an episode of All My Children felt eerily familiar in the Australia of 2010, where an election debate had just been rescheduled to enable the nation to watch the finale of MasterChef.

Offering a kind of summary of his preoccupations, Dante’s recent, independently-financed The Hole (2009) is an archetypal late film, almost entirely theoretical, eerily depopulated in contrast to his usual crowded frames; the 3D format confers a kind of cosmic grandeur upon the empty rooms of an unfurnished house, harking back to Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956), with its proto-Dante insistence on the strangeness of suburbia. In the basement, the teenage hero (Chris Massoglia) and his little brother (Nathan Gamble) discover a “hole” that leads to another dimension: it could equally be considered a pipeline to the unconscious, for phantoms come rushing out that visualise the fears of anyone who gazes into its depths. Credited to Mark L. Smith, the script kids around with Freudian double entendres: “Is that what you do for fun in Brooklyn, play with your holes?” teases the girl next door (Haley Bennett). But like any Dante film, The Hole is ultimately a parable about cinema as both promise and threat: the hole is the movie screen, a vortex and mirror that absorbs the viewer’s imaginings and projects them back in transmuted form. A radical moral: you are responsible for what you see. Tellingly, it’s the kids rather than the adults who are best able to handle their own nightmares; the most helpless victim is the house’s former owner (Bruce Dern), now hidden away in an abandoned factory hung with dozens of chandeliers, scribbling madly as the darkness closes in, pleading “I’m not done!” like Goethe calling for more light.

After the Orgy

Who could possibly top Dante as a MIFF guest? Looking to the future, my dream retrospective subject would be Jerry Lewis: a great filmmaker, a pop icon, and no stranger to Melbourne. True, his diary is likely to be full for the next few years; all the more reason to plan ahead. In the meantime, Dante was far from the only filmmaker featured at MIFF interested in picking up the pieces from the 1960s-’70s blow-out, as if trying to imagine what radical cinema might look like today. Old-fashioned workers-versus-bosses rhetoric made a comeback in Sabu’s Kanikôsen (The Cannery Boat), adapted from a 1929 Japanese novel about a rebellion on board a crab fishing ship, and in Želimir Žilnik’s semi-documentary Stara skola kapitalisma (The Old School of Capitalism), in which a group of anarchist intellectuals intervene, with mixed results, in a strike on the streets of Belgrade. Then there was the Dadaist rebellion of Harmony Korine’s proudly idiotic Trash Humpers, in which the director and his buddies express their Weltanschuuang by dressing up in latex masks, wandering around the suburbs and, yes, humping trash. Leaning heavily on the John Waters slobs-versus-assholes formula and punctuated with Korine’s beloved Gong Show bits, Trash Humpers could be summed up as a Warhol movie starring Beavis and Butthead; though the lo-fi video effects are more studied than one would wish, this remains the most concise summary of its maker’s preoccupations to date.

It would be interesting to know how many of the punters at The Movie Orgy queued up the following week to witness the actual orgy promised in Emilie Jouvet’s Too Much Pussy, originally scheduled as half of a late-night double feature with L.A. Zombie: a documentary that follows the adventures of a troupe of “sex-positive” feminist performance artists as they take their erotic circus on a European tour. Such scandalous narcissism might grow tiresome if the performances didn’t entail a degree of genuine existential risk, and if Jouvet didn’t lift the film above porn by devoting equal time to mundane squabbles between cast members, worries about stage craft, or arguments with would-be censors. Certainly, this was livelier than Anna Brownfield’s Making It Handmade!, a local documentary about a group of Melbourne feminists who make their peace with “nana-dom” by working naughty slogans into their knitting patterns or cross-stitch designs.

The submarine descends again, and we’re lost in Andrei Ujica’s three-hour Autobiografia lui Nicholae Ceausescu (The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu), an historical chronicle assembled from official footage taken of the Romanian dictator over 20 years, so bitterly sarcastic it could almost be taken as a sequel to The Movie Orgy (the sole crossover character is, of course, Richard Nixon). The more we see of Ceausescu, the less knowable he becomes: no cliché indicators of evil attach themselves to this awkward “national hero” whose efforts to maintain the dignity of his office become almost sympathetic as he presides over ludicrously elaborate parades, bumbles through a volleyball game or heads to California to embark on the Universal Studios tour. Often grimly funny, the film is also a sustained exercise in cognitive dissonance: trying to view this Chaplinesque figure as a war criminal is an effort comparable to accepting Michael Palin as a smiling torturer in Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985).

Made for German television in 1973 and only recently rediscovered, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s single foray into science fiction, Welt am Draht (World on a Wire), is a curio that sounds better than it plays: a baroque yet straightforward parable about a “virtual reality” experiment gone awry, acted in strategically numb fashion by a cast of Fassbinder regulars and stretched to nearly four hours with the aid of constant, elegantly tawdry tracking shots. Not really a genre guy, Fassbinder treats the pulp material with deadpan sarcasm, throwing in a handful of bizarre sight gags, usually involving mirrors, along with recurrent appearances by a Marlene Dietrich impersonator (Solange Pradel). Frankly devoid of “depth”, the film still asks to be understood on multiple levels as an allegorical statement on the hypocrisy of post-war German society, the sado-masochism of the actor-director relationship, the falsity of images in general – especially those internalised images which define the “self”.

Chronicling the life and times of the Venezuelan-born terrorist known to the Western media as Carlos the Jackal (played by Édgar Ramírez), Olivier Assayas’ five-hour TV miniseries Carlos belongs to the emerging genre of the leftist retrospective epic, taking its place alongside Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi (United Red Army, Kôji Wakamatsu, 2007), Les amants réguliers (Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel, 2005), the two parts of Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008), and, on a lower artistic level, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (The Baader Meinhof Complex, Uli Edel, 2008). Every Assayas film is a kind of research project, and here he seems to ponder the possibility of restoring a political meaning to “action”, using the word in its violent, spectacular, specifically cinematic sense. Much of Carlos proceeds like a first-rate genre movie, particularly the middle section devoted to its subject’s most notorious escapade, a raid on an OPEC meeting in Vienna; his face-off with the Saudi oil minister is straight from the Quentin Tarantino playbook in its use of grandstanding dialogue to delay a seemingly inevitable shootout.

Carlos’ life leaves little room for introspection, but Assayas has ample time to study the relation between the armed struggle and the “soft world” of luxury and eroticism (an abiding interest in sado-masochism gets full scope here, not least in a bout of foreplay involving a live hand grenade). Moral judgements are eschewed in favor of a curiosity about how such a man might function, blending voyeurism, detachment and sympathy: if Carlos has some of the traits of a psychopath, he remains in some ways an impressive figure, undeniably courageous and no more ruthless than many a national hero. Even as he charts the corruption of leftist ideals, Assayas maintains a respect for the power of glamour, showing how history can be made by the charisma of a young militant in a leather trenchcoat, smoking a cigarette.

Animal Kingdom

“The human subject has been haunted by animals and by everything that has been excluded.” Another motto for MIFF could be this stray line from Mark, Mike Hoolboom’s touching elegy for the film editor and activist Mark Karbusicky, who committed suicide in 2007. Yet another montage film, Mark is built on the layering of video images, everything from Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) to animal rights agitprop. Watching footage shown to him by Karbusicky of baby chickens being pushed into cages, Hoolboom ponders the unknowability of his lost friend, a spiritual vagabond who despite his ties to the Canadian underground remained an outsider in almost every sense: “Why did he feel that these pictures were home?”

Four-legged friends were everywhere at MIFF, from the patiently suffering donkey in a revival of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), to the mule that always returns to its master in Dante’s mean little TV Western Lightning (1995) (this could almost be taken as a Bresson parody, though The Movie Orgy points to a more likely inspiration in blooper-ridden episodes of The Lone Ranger). Animals were the explicit theme of the programming strand “Wild Things”, a misleading title considering how few of its featured players were permitted to roam free. The real concern here was the problem of anthropomorphism: how far can animal films avoid becoming surreptitious statements about our own uncertain place in the world? Nicolas Philibert’s documentary Nénette spends its running time contemplating an elderly orangutan in a Paris zoo, but reveals more about the unseen spectators who project their own imaginings onto her solemn face. Bert Haanstra’s short film Zoo (1962) pulls off a similar trick, filming zoo visitors from behind cage bars as if to ask who is more truly locked in.

Of course it’s possible to film humans, too, as if they were creatures under glass, intriguing, unpredictable, opaque. That’s the way director Guo Xiaolu looks at Mei (Huang Lu), the heroine of She, a Chinese – a young woman from rural China who flees her village and becomes an unlikely picaresque heroine, living by her wits while resisting a seemingly inevitable descent into prostitution. Guo presents this chronicle in unadorned style, as if she and her crew were simply tagging along for the ride; the film flirts with cliché in evoking a familiar modern sensation of drift (an emblematic shot: Mei slumped with her backpack by the side of an overpass, watching the cars go by). But the director’s intelligence is evident in her refusal to portray Mei as either heroic or hateful, and in her division of the narrative into wryly-titled chapters, perhaps a nod to Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, Jean-Luc Godard, 1962).

Trapped like a lab rat in a mysterious white box, the nameless, pyjama-clad hero played by Hitoshi Matsumoto in his inspired slapstick comedy Shinboru (Symbol) appears to be the subject of a controlled experiment carried out by aliens or gods. Hundred of buttons appear on the walls around him, to be pressed for widely varying results: a door opens and quickly closes, a bowl of sushi slides out of a slot, a giant pair of buttocks descends from the ceiling to fart in his face… Equal parts Samuel Beckett and Peewee’s Playhouse, the film consists essentially of a single slow-burn gag centred on the hero’s desperate efforts to escape, interspersed with snippets from an apparently unrelated subplot about a Mexican wrestler (David Quintero) and his family. Will this eventually connect with the main story? The answer is yes, but not in any way you might be anticipating.

Another exotic zoo animal: the famous techno DJ profiled in Romuald Karmarker’s documentary Villalobos, a long-limbed, highly-evolved ape, leaping around his work station (another white box), flicking through a massive record collection ordered by private esoteric principles, running his fingers through his hair. Even for non-initiates, it’s a fascinating film, for its Chilean-German subject proves infinitely more articulate than the average English-speaking musician, and Karmarker is unafraid to give him large slabs of time to outline his aesthetic principles (a riff on the declining quality of classical recording since the 1960s is an education in itself). For better or worse, Villalobos emerges as something like a paradigmatic 21st-century artist – an ascetic and a populist, drawing from existing sources all over the map while striving to please both himself and a crowd.

Less content in her solitude is Laura (Monica del Carmen), the young Mexican heroine of Año bisiesto (Leap Year), the Camera d’Or-winning first feature from the Australian-born director Michael Rowe. A reclusive “financial journalist” with a plaintive little-girl voice, she spends most of the film confined to her apartment, where she masturbates, plays computer games or scoffs icecream in between visits from her lover (Gustavo Sánchez Parra). Advance word dwelt on Leap Year’s sado-masochistic sex scenes, but the most shocking touches are verbal rather than visual; it’s hard to imagine this ultimately gentle character study attracting protests from anyone except for committed kinksters, who might object to the pat connection between Laura’s masochism and her heavily signalled traumatic backstory. Still, with its long static shots, semi-comic depiction of urban alienation and gradual embrace of erotic entropy, Leap Year was the closest thing MIFF had to offer to a Tsai Ming-Liang movie: it’s odd that Tsai’s latest, Visage (Face), didn’t make it over from Cannes, given how consistently MIFF has championed his work.

Far more gruelling sex scenes could be found in Kôji Wakumatsu’s Kyatapirâ (Caterpillar), not an animal film but a chamber piece in which a Japanese soldier (Keigo Kasuya) returns from battle with a heavily scarred face and without any limbs, to be tended to by a wife (Shinobu Terajima) painfully conscious of her duty to a Living War God. Wakumatsu spares us no detail of their physical relationship, in an intimately painful film that renders the personal political with a vengeance.

But Wait! There’s More!

Abbas Kiarostami has made a career out of taking his followers by surprise, and Copie conforme (Certified Copy), his first film made outside Iran, is yet another departure: an airy romantic comedy about an antique dealer (Juliette Binoche) and a British academic (the opera singer William Shimell) who meet for the first time (or do they?) in a Tuscan village. Over the course of an afternoon, they slowly morph into a semblance of a married couple, in parallel with their philosophical banter about the difference, if any, between copies and original works of art. Kiarostami likes to talk about making “open films” – but despite his frequent pantomime of throwing up his hands, no artist is more controlling (even sadistic) or more certain of purpose. The outwardly tranquil Certified Copy may well be a film he has been planning for decades, usefully summarising the central puzzle of his oeuvre: is he materialist or mystic, inviting us to rejoice in the world’s immediate presence or suggesting that appearances are mere shadows of invisible forms?

Francis Ford Coppola also took off for new territory in his batty but impressive Tetro, a multi-generational Oedipal melodrama set in Argentina and starring Vincent Gallo as a petulant egomaniac (quite a stretch) who responds to questions about why he’s stopped writing with the proclamation “I don’t have a pencil.” Littered with symbolic talismans and film-buff references – clips from The Tales of Hoffman (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, 1951) play an especially significant role – Tetro offers perhaps the most authoritative demonstration yet that digital cinematography has come of age; the deep-focus black-and-white images would not disgrace Welles or Federico Fellini, the most obvious stylistic reference points. After two viewings the story remains difficult to parse, with much hinging on how far Gallo’s character can be taken as a reliable narrator. Still, the final line might be the funniest and most resonant of Coppola’s career.

Following the actress and singer Jeanne Balibar in the process of recording her second album, Pedro Costa’s documentary Ne Change Rien (Change Nothing) on one level seems interested in demystifying the artistic process, allowing us access to the space behind the scenes where collaborative effort proceeds via trial and error. But Costa is equally concerned to invest this space with as much mystery and glamour as possible: the stop-start recording process leaves gaps that seem to pull us into the unconscious of the music, while Balibar is typically veiled in semi-darkness at the far end of the room, as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Belying the common view of Costa as a difficult, intellectual director, the film is all about mood and feeling – deeply seductive regardless of how one responds to Balibar as a post-punk chanteuse.

The struggle and danger of creation is also the subject of Jacques Rivette’s 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (Around a Small Mountain), a ragged comedy that restricts itself to a handful of actors and a couple of locations in rural France, almost wilfully courting failure as it demonstrates that just a few casual gestures can bring a story to life. Kate (Jane Birkin) is the prodigal daughter of a circus family, returning after decades to confront the tragedy of her youth; in the opening sequence, she meets Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), a roaming amateur who becomes fascinated with the struggling troupe and eventually finds himself propelled into the ring. As a fable about the risks of art, this is more didactic than usual for a filmmaker generally allergic to direct statement. But in less than 90 minutes he again summons the rough magic that belongs to no-one else: the feeling of hanging out alongside the characters within the fiction, waiting for something to turn up.

There was plenty to puzzle over in Film Socialisme (Socialism), the latest from Rivette’s one-time New Wave comrade Jean-Luc Godard, screened with the filmmaker’s own unhelpful truncated English subtitles: this could be taken either as a way of closing the door against non-Europeans or, more optimistically, as an invitation to trust the images and sounds. No-one could mistake Godard’s subject, which is nothing less than the state of Western civilisation: the long opening segment follows a group of tourists on board a cruise ship touring historical trouble spots on the shores of the Mediterranean, many of them equipped with recording devices of their own. Judging by what I could glean with my meagre French, the “script” is another of Godard’s paper-chases, one reference or aphorism suggesting another; his wry sense of humour remains intact, along with his addiction to baiting the audience (one of the first sounds heard is a burst of derisive laughter which, thanks to his unorthodox mixing techniques, almost seems to emanate from the front row).

As ever with Godard, Film Socialisme will keep the professors busy for centuries, but for the moment the important thing was to go with the flow, gleaning what you could along the way. Some of the puns are bilingual (“auteurism” in the subtitles becomes “or-tourism”) and a few of the sound-and-vision gags could come from a Dante comedy or at least one by Jacques Tati: a young woman mimicking the cat noises on her computer as if learning a new language, a mass conducted on board ship in full view of the bar. Regardless of cultural background, no lover of cinema could fail to appreciate the brilliance of the colours, the calmness-in-tumult of the editing rhythms, the very modern sense of swimming bewildered through a profusion of all-too-readily manufactured images… As if to combat the loss of historical memory, the film proposes a return to origins: to the dawn of history (Ancient Egypt is repeatedly invoked), to political first principles (the family as the oldest form of political unit), to the sea (those eye-filling shots of the ocean, recurring throughout like an ancient refrain). More animals make cameo appearances: a pair of parrots, a pet llama, an owl that might be Minerva’s, taking flight at dusk. The complacency of the tourists seems shadowed by a sense of society’s founding violence, due to break out again at any time: the final moments don’t bode well.

Was it the central event of the festival? Maybe, but there was also Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s surprise Cannes prizewinner Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), a last-minute addition to the MIFF program that arrived in time for a single screening on closing night. This is perhaps Apichatpong’s most accessible film, but no less strange or singular than Sud pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004), or Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006), once again blending fantastical notions – ghost monkeys, mysterious caves, a talking catfish – with a calmly insolent absence of visible technique. A film like a dream, sophisticated and “primitive”, perfect to sink into when all efforts at analysis have run their course. Overturning all possible rules of dramatic construction, the story eventually lands its characters in two places at once and ends just when it seems ready to go on forever…

This festival report was edited by Fincina Hopgood. Parts of this article appeared in different form in The Age (Melbourne).