At first blush, it seems difficult to pin-down what this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) was trying to be: with an international programme borrowing heavily from Cannes and Venice, a good portion of which screened two months earlier at the Sydney Film Festival, a lack of big-name festival guests, and a fairly unadventurous slate of Australian features, the character of this year’s festival is suggested by two of its strands. Of principal interest to me were two career retrospectives of very different French auteurs: a fine retrospective of little-seen Jean Epstein films harking back to the early days of cinema, and a career-spanning revisitation of Leos Carax’s slender body of work suggesting possible directions for its future. That Carax did not deign to grace the festival with his presence is hardly surprising given his pointedly aloof interactions with the press at Cannes this year.

Holy Motors

Despite playing at MIFF just weeks before its theatrical release, Holy Motors seemed to be the talking point of the town, looming authoritatively over the entirety of the festival. The audience at the screening I attended were certainly enraptured by it, and left singing its praises in hushed tones. I wish I could share their enthusiasm for the film, but despite optimistic expectations, Holy Motors didn’t sit so well with me. A lively film with an inventive visual language all its own, I nevertheless grew to find its charms superficial, my interest waning as the pace slackened in its middle stretches. A film of narrative dead-ends, the overall impression left by the film is one of Carax flailing in all directions, trying to find something that sticks. Indeed, any early-career criticisms of muddled style-over-substance that have dogged Carax will not be dispelled by his latest film. If the opportunity to revisit his earliest films at the festival proved anything, it’s that Boy Meets Girl (1984) has aged remarkably well, and remains a testament to the arrival of a seemingly effortless, prodigious talent. There is no doubt that Carax’s mastery of cinematic style endures with Holy Motors, but it is employed here towards entirely narcissistic ends. Where others have been enchanted by the way Carax hops genres and self-consciously borrows from other films, I found his pastiche ultimately empty, the art cinema equivalent of spotting a pop culture reference in Family Guy or an internet meme: the thrill of witnessing Édith Scob don the mask from Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju, 1960) is a simplistic thrill of recognition rather than a more meaningful recontextualisation, and I am not convinced that Carax has much to say here about the death of cinema, the exhaustion of its genres, or its need for reinvention. At any rate, one needn’t probe Holy Motors too deeply for subtext: either you submit to the parade of absurdities Carax strings together, or you reject it (the concluding joke, which I found truly moronic, will be an effective litmus test for most). This film has already drawn many comparisons with this year’s other movie about white limos, and my take is that Holy Motors is almost a complete inversion of the bloodless Cosmopolis (not screening at the festival). Where Cronenberg’s camera glides past static, flat surfaces and wooden performances, Carax’s camera is relentlessly roving in three dimensions, to match the pace of the manic, wheezy Denis Lavant. That Cronenberg’s film is a failure on almost every level is beside the point: Cosmopolis is terminally immobilised by its absolute fidelity to Don DeLillo’s cerebral prose, while Holy Motors thrashes wildly out of Carax’s subconscious, revelling in its wilful obscurity. There are perhaps deeper mysteries buried somewhere within this strange film than I troubled to pick out on first viewing. Nevertheless, I am not in a hurry to return to it.

Tabu

In the wake of Holy Motors, what a delight it was to see a film that actually lives up to one’s expectations; Miguel Gomes’ Tabu proved to be one of the highlights of the festival. A film of two distinct halves, like Wong Kar-wai’s Chung Hing sam lam (Chungking Express, 1994) and Gomes’ previous feature Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto (Our Beloved Month of August, 2008), Tabu begins with “Paradise Lost”, a domestic chamber drama in which a group of women come together in and around an apartment in present-day Lisbon as the elderly Aurora’s (Laura Soveral) life slips away in the days before the arrival of the new year. The return of a figure from the distant past tugs us down the passages of memory and into the company of the young Aurora, in love somewhere in Africa, sometime in the 1960s. It is in this second half, “Paradise” that Gomes’ film truly comes to life. Moments of stunning natural beauty are never rhapsodised by the 16mm photography, working with natural light in a manner recalling François Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage (1970). On paper, Tabu may sound a hefty film, working through themes of colonialism, regret, sin, prayer, memory, and the passage of time, but Gomes employs a deft hand, never allowing the thematic material to outweigh the essence of his love story. Above all, this is an enormously playful film. Gomes plays some tricky games with sound and voiceover, and an understated sense of surrealism lurks around the edges of the film, most notably in the form of the many animals that populate the film. Donkeys mysteriously lurk in windows at the back of the frame, and the seemingly all-seeing crocodile is as far away as it may seem. Working through an enormous canon of cinematic influences in a far more satisfying way than Carax’s glib offering (Gomes’ titular allusion to Murnau is no coincidence), Melbourne’s resplendent Forum Theatre proved a fittingly grand venue for Gomes’ expansive vision: this film is a joy to watch.

A less pleasant viewing experience was the typically annoying festival promo screened at the start of each film that seemed calculated to enrage the festival-going audience, this time inadvertently recycling Mike Myers’ 20-year old Sprockets character from Saturday Night Live in a misguided attempt at parodying pretentious filmnik types – perhaps the type that might attend such a festival as MIFF? Why the powers-that-be consistently insist on mis-marketing this festival (the omnipresent slogan, “only the best films make the cut”, being the non sequitur of the minute) is a mystery to me. Also missing from the festival was the kind of epic cinematic gargantuans that are usually a staple of MIFF, with only a small number of films pushing the two-hour mark, which I hope is only a coincidence, and not a ploy to fit more sessions into each day (I do not include here the restoration of the masterful Once Upon a Time in America [Sergio Leone, 1984] – which unfortunately didn’t end up screening – or Anurag Kashyap’s Indian gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur, which was split into two parts, each running at a still-impressively robust 160 minutes).

Take the Money and Run

The “70s New Hollywood Comedy” festival strand did what it could with a cinematic moment that is not exactly prized for its humour, with titles including Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971), Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen, 1969) and, most interestingly, Mike Nichols’ The Fortune (1975), which brought together such big names of the period as Carole Eastman/Adrien Joyce, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Dick Sylbert. Despite a fairly stodgy first half, once Nicholson and Beatty decide to knock off Stockard Channing the film more successfully transitions into the kind of black comic farce the Coen brothers based their career on in the mid-1990s (they have openly acknowledged its influence). Elsewhere, the “Facing North: Swedish Cinema in Focus” strand interestingly chose to scramble its chronology, meaning Reuben Östlund’s savagely barbed De ofrivilliga (Involuntary, 2008) played alongside Bo Widerberg’s French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)-inspired Mannen på taket (The Man on the Roof, 1976).

Speak of the devil, what to say of Friedkin’s Killer Joe? If nothing else, this confirms Friedkin’s station as the most venomous misanthrope presently working in American cinema. A mean, leering, deeply misogynistic film, Killer Joe earns every bit of its US NC-17 rating, even as it belies its low budget origins – I was shocked to see that Caleb Deschanel shot this, given that stylistically it resembles a telemovie. Screenwriter Tracy Letts begins the film in grizzled Jim Thompson territory, then proceeds to fly waaay off the handle. Matthew McConaughey chews the scenery effectively, and the most successful gag here has to do with the fact that monster trucks always seem to be on television. Self-impressed and too-smart-by-half, the presence of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’” over the end credits suggests that Friedkin is having a laugh at all of our expenses. Needless to say, much of the festival crowd loved it, proving that there is a certain kind of individual in the world that will find much to enjoy in Friedkin’s brand of sadism. I do not want to be that person.

Ace Attorney

Some brief impressions: Three Miike Takashi films – Gyakuten saiban (Ace Attorney), Ai to makoto (For Love’s Sake), and Ichimei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) – seems a little excessive for one festival, although I suppose it is representative of the erratic director’s voluminous output. The Taviani brothers’ Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die) plays interestingly on the tension between fiction and non-fiction in its representation of caged masculinity, but is stylistically overwrought, with the individuals onscreen far more interesting than the film itself. Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alpeis (Alps) has already been covered elsewhere in Senses of Cinema, so allow me simply to say that I enjoyed the way it works with the obsessive pop culture tapestry of our times, and spreads out in all kinds of sinister directions. It is an original vision of troubling times. From the savage to the saccharine: Whit Stillman’s long-awaited return to the director’s chair, Damsels in Distress, treads a fine line. By all rights I should have been repelled by this leisurely stroll with the privileged Ivy League set, but I found myself won over by “mumblecore” alumni Greta Gerwig, and the spectacularly kitschy doo-wop soundtrack. Despite the cloying cutesiness and perpetual whimsy, I get the impression that Stillman cares more about his characters than his oft-unrelatable, more commercially successful counterpart, Wes Anderson; at least, I did. Three slices of daily life: Ann Hui’s Tao jie (A Simple Life) is at its best when it finds quiet humour in domestic moments, and elicits strong, dignified performances from Deanie Ip and a low-key Andy Lau. Aurora Guerrero’s Mosquita y Mari leans too heavily upon clichés (laboured post-rock soundtrack accompanying slow-motion shots of its characters moodily walking along train tracks), and its tale of teenage friendship is overly familiar, but its two leads have a magnetic pull, particularly the melancholy Fenessa Pineda. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s change of pace with Kiseki (I Wish) is the most successful film of the three, evocatively inhabiting the bubble that shields young children from the concerns of the adult world. Two young brothers, separated by divorce, hatch a supernatural plan to reunite their parents. This disarmingly meandering film of diversions and in-jokes shared on trains, builds to an unexpectedly rapturous montage sequence that turns the film back on itself and is, in its own way, something of a tour de-force.

The documentaries

Marie Riviere’s video-dairy En compagnie d’Eric Rohmer (In the Company of Eric Rohmer) contains various charming moments that will thrill Rohmer obsessives: some thorny interactions between Rivière and Arielle Dombasle, the fact that Rivière’s teenage son looks like one of Rohmer’s characters, and enough lurking cats to please the late Chris Marker. The frail-looking Rohmer displays typical humility, preferring to read from Rimbaud than discuss his films, and complaining that his brutal Triple Agent (2004) is too sad, later qualifying that with, “it’s good that I’ve made a sad film in my life”. But once Rivière starts coaxing Rohmer to sing on camera, the patience of all but the most zealous acolytes will be tested. Rivière’s very rough digital photography and choppy editing will win no prizes, resembling a third-rate stab at latter-day Agnès Varda by-way-of Windows Movie Maker, but this is a lightweight diversion that may fit the bill for those stuck in a mid-festival slump.

Whores’ Glory is a globetrotting tour of mega-brothels, from the neon hell of Bangkok to the squalid backstreets of northeastern Mexico. I admired Michael Glawogger’s earlier Megacities (1998) for the scope of its ambition, and the sternness of its detached gaze. Unfortunately, here both Glawogger and his subjects seem altogether too aware of the camera, lending the film a rather odd, stilted quality which does not work in its favour. The topic of prostitution is obviously an ethically difficult one to approach in documentary, and Glawogger seems incapable of finding an interesting angle on his subject matter. A devastating interview with an older prostitute in the Bangladesh sequence of the film is the sole affecting moment here. This film appears lost, and rings false.

Bad Brains: Bands in DC

I think that hardcore punk must be the least cinematic of all musical genres, which places the new Bad Brains documentary at a disadvantage from the outset. To its credit, The Bad Brains: A Band in DC (Ben Logan and Mandy Stein) includes some electrifying, rarely-seen live footage of the early performances of this New York-by-way-of-DC hardcore band that only makes their prolonged, decades-spanning slide into mediocrity more difficult to watch (although the pain is lessened, to some extent, by the pleasure of joining bassist Darryl Jennifer for a brief round of golf). Predictably, this documentary heavily over-represents their reggae material, includes far too much Henry Rollins, and irritatingly insists on re-enacting every anecdote shared with animated caricatures of the Brains (replete with strangely Anglo-looking features). Troublingly, all of the interview subjects, and seemingly the filmmakers themselves, seem far to quick to dismiss vocalist HR’s obviously declining mental health as some kind of endearing personality quirk; when the only person to express concern is a representative of Madonna’s record label (!), perhaps it is time to reassess the company one keeps. This is a better film than Paul Rachman’s narcoleptic American Hardcore (2006), but despite its memorable cast of characters, it doesn’t come close to channelling the raw power of the great American punk films: Jem Cohen’s Instrument (1999), Tim Irwin’s We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005), and Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilisation (1981).

For those who did not get their fill of animals from Tabu: the good news is that Bestiaire consists of nothing but. Denis Côté’s film works with locked-off shots that impassively regard a succession of animals on display, in environments ranging from the zoo to the taxidermist. Côté has an eye for compelling, sometimes abstract visual compositions, and this is one of those rare movies that fully embraces the steeliness of the digital gaze. Côté is able to mine a wry humour from his animal subjects in places, as when the enormous eye of an ostrich flicks about the screen, or a solemn bull transfixes us with its glare. Yet for all its wide variety of wildlife, Bestiaire is still a little cold around the edges. A comparison with Gideon Koppel’s stylistically-comparable Sleep Furiously (2008) is illustrative: Koppel’s is a work of deep feeling, whilst Bestiaire comes across as more of an icy formal exercise than a frolic with living, breathing creatures.

Futures Market

Côté has a likeminded ally in the shape of Mercedes Álvarez. Mercados de futuros (Futures Market) expands the focus of Álvarez’s feature debut, El cielo gira (The Sky Turns, 2004), from the day-to-day concerns of village living to more nebulous concerns. Beginning with a meticulous inventory of possessions and objects being packed and removed from a grand old house, Álvarez moves through real-estate expos, corporate lectures, frantic stockbrokers spewing impenetrable cadences of numbers, a child’s drawing of his route to school, and finally reaches a dead stop at an enormous open-air junk market manned by an elderly trader who seems comically unwilling to part with his wares. Álvarez works here with some astonishing visuals: an enormous escalator bisects the frame, and businessmen become marble pillars. In viewing these painstakingly-framed long takes, the audience must slowly piece together the relationships between disparate images, with overarching strands of meaning gradually revealing themselves: this is a film about the crisis of over-production, about managers in spotless boardrooms scrambling to commodify products before they exist, as the poor are inundated in a sea of detritus. The omniscient, observational mode of Futures Market is one that rewards the attentive viewer.

The surface of things

Given that hearsay suggests that this will pretty much be the penultimate MIFF to feature actual film, it is fitting that the festival carried an overriding attunement to the end of cinema. Christopher Kenneally’s Keanu Reeves-narrated documentary Side by Side made this explicit, but the more interesting films (Correspondence: Jonas Mekas – JL Guerin, Miss Lovely [Ashim Ahluwalia], and Nicholas Ray’s newly-resurrected We Can’t Go Home Again [1976]) conveyed this concern in more tangible ways, exploring the shifting textures of the medium itself. The programming of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers at MIFF 2010 appears to have anticipated a new renaissance of features shot on lower grade video. Besides Holy Motors, the other “big” import from Cannes was Pablo Larraín’s No. Neither the endless following-shots of Tony Manero (2008) or the static long-takes of Post Mortem (2010) prepared me for the rapid-fire pseudo-documentary sensibility of Larraín’s latest, a portrayal of the unlikely role that Gael García Bernal’s slick adman played in the toppling of Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian regime that is heavily indebted to Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969). Larraín’s decision to shoot on U-Matic, and the care with which the pop-historical moment is recreated, results in a film that looks every bit like the late-1980s commercials which are cut into its narrative. Larraín masterfully ratchets up the tension as the fascists clamp down on the “no” campaign that is unexpectedly gaining momentum, and the film arrives at a surprisingly sincere catharsis. Viewers who are wrong-footed by Larraín’s newfound exuberance will appreciate the cynical concluding coda, which suggests that whether one stands on the left or the right, once the tools of capitalism are co-opted to sell a political message, crass commercialism triumphs over all.

V/H/S

At the other end of the spectrum of artistic achievement stands V/H/S, an anthology film (among others, Joe Swanberg turns up as one of the contributing directors) in the found footage mould that purports to be shot on videotape. In fact, it becomes readily apparent that only the framing narrative is in fact shot on videotape, with many of the individual segments appearing to have been shot on high-definition, and modified in post-production to appear more “analogue”. Overlooking some awful CGI blood effects, some of the more subdued moments trade effectively on a J-horror sense of menace, but for the most part far too much of this movie is concerned with the offscreen fratboy camera operators insistently urging every female in sight to disrobe or perform sex acts on camera. I found this bro-horror milieu fairly unbearable to inhabit.

Moving to more sombre matters, Davy Chou’s Cambodian/French co-production Le sommeil d’or (Golden Slumbers) deals with a very different death of cinema, reanimating ghosts of the Cambodian national cinema that was expunged during the Khmer Rouge genocides. An equally moribund exploration of the past’s grip on the present, it seems fitting to conclude with Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea, which won the TeleScope prize for Best New European feature. Rivers demonstrates a possible future for celluloid as kept alive by the patient, steadfast enthusiast. A cryptic, deadpan, defiantly small-scale film, with an unexpected undercurrent of dry humour, Two Years at Sea possesses a shimmering, flickering quality. Rivers’ hand-processing of 16mm stock results in an extra-textual dance of grain and flash-frames across the image of the unnamed protagonist trekking into the wilderness, marking the film with an idiosyncratically handmade aesthetic. Rivers is one to watch – MIFF has profiled his short works several times in recent years – and we can only hope that Australian audiences will have the opportunity to view his subsequent works.

Melbourne International Film Festival
2-19 August 2012
Festival website: www.miff.com.au