There are festivals that are objectively deemed to be ‘major’, and then there are festivals that have a special place in our individual hearts. The Viennale certainly occupies this latter position for me, but I would also like to posit that it is successful as a festival for today’s ardent cinephile. Of course, Vienna can not compete with the likes of Cannes or Venice for world premieres, and so has much less of an impact on the global consciousness of the film world – but why should this rather meaningless criterion be the primary unit of measurement for a festival’s prowess? And yes, there are other festivals whose programs are more comprehensive than the Viennale’s (Rotterdam, Toronto, Berlin…) – but since when did quantity have anything to do with quality? Vienna’s attributes lie in other areas. The venues, for one. Spurning the multiplexes that now do the heavy lifting for so many other film festivals, the Viennale contains itself to six single-screen cinemas within walking distance of each other, forming a crescent shape around the south-east rim of the first Bezirk. From the wood-panelled cosiness of the Metro Kino to the 1960s avant-garde functionalism of the Gartenbaukino, each venue possesses its own charm, exudes its own aura – such that is difficult to imagine the festival operating without them (sadly, however, this year it was necessary to bid farewell to one of the venues, as the old Stadtkino closed down after festival’s end). The setting is another of the festival’s strengths: the dubious legacy of being an old imperial capital at least has the benefit of bequeathing an abundance of architectural riches to the modern day city, whose immaculate beauty (best appreciated when walking back to one’s hotel on a misty night) has few peers in Europe. Moreover, the audience – mostly locals, but with a tightly-knit coterie of international guests thrown into the mix – is among the most knowledgeable and appreciative in the world.
But it is above all in its programming selection that the Viennale excels. Of course, it is impossible to satisfy everyone, and there will always be those who feel that certain filmmakers, movements or formats suffer from undue neglect – something that is perhaps exacerbated by the uncompromising nature of director Hans Hurch’s tastes and the Castro-style longevity of his tenure (at the helm since 1997, his contract was recently extended to 2016), which inevitably means that other curatorial voices in the city tend to be sidelined. But to those who may cavil, I simply have this to say: in terms of providing a window into the art of cinema, name me one other festival that outdoes the Viennale.
This year’s edition of the festival furnished a textbook example of the Viennale’s programming ethos: leaving a screening of Straub/Huillet’s 1968 film Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach in the Gartenbaukino on a Sunday afternoon, I hurried across town to the Künstlerhaus in order to catch Will Ferrell’s telenovela-parody Casa de mi padre. Both Jean-Marie Straub and Will Ferrell were figures de prou at this year’s Viennale: not, one sensed, out of a self-conscious attempt at provocative eclecticism, nor due to a desire for the festival to be all things for all people, to cover both the low-brow and the high-brow regardless of the inclinations of the festival organisers. Rather – and yes, as far as the intentions of the festival goes, this is mainly speculative intuition on my part – it is because both Straub and Ferrell represent (in wildly different ways, undeniably) the aesthetic heights that can be reached by the cinema, this beast that, in spite of all the readily apparent centrifugal forces operating on it, is still a singular entity, capable of embracing the radical formal purity of the former and the raw physical comedy of the latter at one and the same time. Both, as this curatorial gesture aptly underlined, have an equal claim to be honoured at an event that truly merits being called a film festival, and they can, I dare say, be enriched by their juxtaposition with one another. As Serge Daney would say, “Both have their fans. Me, for example.”
That Straub’s films should be shown at this year’s festival hardly constitutes a surprise: of all the European institutions that provide backing to the work of this titan of modern cinema, the Viennale is one of his most steadfastly loyal supporters: a fact highlighted by the twin plaques bearing quotes from Marx and Hölderlin erected in the Gartenbaukino in memory of Danièle Huillet. Two new short films by Straub – Un conte de Michel de Montaigne and Dialogue d’ombres – were accompanied in the program by two of the couple’s earliest works: Machorka-Muff and the Bach-film. Since Huillet’s death in 2006, Straub’s solitary continuation of their œuvre has taken the formal system they had developed together in fascinating new directions: henceforth restricting himself to the short film format (in which he has been remarkably prolific, averaging close to two films a year since 2007), Straub has also made a blanket switch to digital cinematography in his post-Huillet work. But the fundamentals of his approach to filmmaking remain unaltered: Straub’s digital image is, like Straub/Huillet’s celluloid frame, resolutely materialist and in profound solidarity with the world it films. Moreover, the newer works tend to operate in an agglutinative fashion, referring back both to each other and to earlier films in Straub/Huillet’s œuvre, and fusing together to build up a multifaceted machine, which is possibly more aptly considered as a single film à longue haleine – one that, despite being produced and viewed in periodic instalments over a period of several years, retains a core formal and thematic unity.
From within this machine, however, certain component parts still stand out: for me, Dialogues d’ombres is not only the best film made by Straub since Huillet’s death, it was also the richest, most beautiful viewing experience of the Viennale, in spite of its slender 28-minute duration. Appropriately, Huillet is given co-directorial credit for the film, which is dated as 1954-2013: the two had, apparently, worked on an adaptation of the source text (a series of dialogues by Georges Bernanos) at the time of their first encounter with each other. Six decades later, Straub returns to the project, thereby completing unfinished business, and composing an ode to his lost Lebensgefährte. Cornelia Geiser and Bertrand Brouder – partners in real-life – incarnate a pair of paramours as they read out the Bernanosian dialogues, which elegantly speak of the perseverance of love through the emotional vicissitudes of jealousy and disenchantment. The physicality of their on-screen presence and the musicality of their recitations are performative high-points of Straub/Huillet’s work, and garnered praise, in the post-screening discussion, from no less than Astrid Ofner (who, as the moderator reminded us, is “die Antigone”). As is standard in Straub/Huillet’s work, the film is shot in verdant countryside, and the sounds of insects and rustling leaves vie with the voices of the performers for aural primacy. The true splendour of the film, however, derives from its shot construction – and here the festival’s decision to screen the Bach-film was eminently justified, as echoes of the earlier film’s formal manoeuvres can be found in Dialogues. The structural principle behind the new film is remarkably simple: the two seated lovers are shown in a pair of separate frames throughout the entire film (usually occupying a lower corner of the image, allowing the vegetation behind them a high degree of prominence within the mise en scène), such that the spectator is unsure what their spatial relationship is to one another, or even if they are occupying the same space at all. In the final shot, however, all is revealed: in fact, they have been sitting on the same park bench the whole time. Nothing could be more basic; a child could understand the premise behind the découpage (indeed, Huillet said, as you may recall, that children were the ideal spectators for their films). And yet the cut to the two-shot was one of the most emotionally rousing moments I have experienced in a cinema in my life.
The same exploration of the fundamentals of film grammar was also in evidence in the other truly incomparable film of the Viennale, Albert Serra’s Història de la meva mort (Story of My Death). After spending the last five years traversing the treacherous terrain of gallery commissions (including the 101-hour video installation The Three Little Pigs for documenta last year), Serra returns to the feature film format for the first time since 2008’s El cant des ocells (Birdsong). In spite of my fervent admiration for his first two films, everything seemed to augur badly for this outing. After all, it is tough to think of any filmmaker who has actually benefited from a prolonged stint in the art world – usually, such peregrinations have the opposite effect, leading to a laxness and indiscipline in their work. When I heard that the running time of Story of My Death was two-and-a-half hours, my anxieties were only exacerbated: invariably, films of this length are tumefied disasters. The fact that the premise for Serra’s work – “Casanova meets Dracula” – could have come straight from the rejected scripts drawer at Hammer Films, and the mixed reviews in the French media corps upon its release in the Hexagon (including a particularly spiteful notice in Cahiers du cinéma), did nothing to allay my fears. In fact, however, Story of My Death is a worthy successor to Honor de cavalleria (2006) and Birdsong, as it careens between being by turns invigorating and baffling, puerile and contemplative, gleefully provocative and sheerly beautiful. Prefaced by Albert Serra’s introduction to the screening, in which he reiterated a description a friend of his had made of Story of My Death as being “about the beauty of horror and the horror of beauty”, the film opens with, precisely, a rumination on aesthetic constipation which is hard not to see as a commentary on Serra’s own artistic calvaire. Sitting by a bonfire, a self-proclaimed poet bemoans his lack of inspiration: despite having written non-stop for two years, he has only completed a single ode in this period. “The stairs of poetry are steep,” he laments. Although after this prelude we never see the poet again, the equation between artistic production and shitting is a recurrent metaphor in the film, which features scenes of Casanova diarrhoetically relieving himself into a chamber pot while uncontrollably laughing, and, memorably, a pile of shit transforming into gold before our eyes.
On a broader level, Story of My Death is divided into two parts: an opening stanza – set in Switzerland and mainly shot in the sunlit interiors of an 18th-century chateau, where Casanova idly discusses topics such as Vivaldi’s pederasty, the “revolution to come” and a mooted etymological encyclopaedia of cheese with his servant Pompeu (played by Lluis Serrat, a Stammgast in Serra’s films) – and a much darker second movement, where the setting shifts to a village in the southern Carpathian mountains, and our two heroes take a liking to the local farm girls. It is at this point that Dracula makes his entry. As the film progresses, his growing dominance seems to extend to the film itself: Serra’s palette becomes ever gloomier, and, as the director explains in an interview I carried out with him while my mind was still a little boggled from what I had seen the night before, even the editing of scenes seems to disintegrate, as spatial and temporal relations between shots evaporate into a black miasma of unintelligibility.
Despite shooting on a reasonably cheap digital camera, as necessitated by the nature of his filming method (Serra claims to have shot 440 hours of rushes), the director insisted on striking a 35mm print of the film – recalcitrantly defying the relentless trend towards digital projection. The celluloid adds considerably to the beauty of the work, lending the image a patina which, from the present standpoint, gives it an almost archaic tinge that is only too fitting for the subject matter.
The same stance was adopted by Mark Peranson (himself a vocal advocate of Serra’s work) and Raya Martin in their collaboration La última película. Channelling Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, the duo struck out for the Yucatan peninsula, corralling Alex Ross Perry to play a director with delusions of grandeur who, having scrambled together the last reels of celluloid ever to be manufactured, endeavours to film the end of the world (which, as some of us may remember, the Mayans had predicted would occur on December 21, 2012). But his project descends into a humiliating farce, just as the film itself falls apart into a random sprinkling of outtakes and abstract footage. Few films have left me as torn in my opinions as this one: on the one hand, I can not but applaud the gesture of issuing a last clarion call for celluloid (however futile this may seem), and some of the imagery captured by the nine or so cameras used for filming had a spellbinding beauty, adding to the documentary qualities of the specific moment in time the filmmakers were admirably able to capture (the rapidfire shoot lasted barely a week). On the other hand, the camerawork is exceptionally capricious, lazy even – and while this was obviously a deliberate part of the film’s aesthetic, this only begs the question. If film stock is becoming such a rare commodity, why dissipate it on such slipshod filmmaking? Surely a more fitting monument to celluloid could be conceived? Indeed, the reservations I had about the broader attitude the filmmakers held towards their film were neatly encapsulated in a central scene in which Perry scathingly rants about the new-age Western tourists amassing at the Mayan pyramid for the coming apocalypse. Are Peranson/Martin making fun of tourists, or are they making fun of people who make fun of tourists? Or both? More generally, with its jolty editing, visible boom mics, and even a “scene missing” title card, is their film actually good, in their opinion, or is it deliberately bad, an extended prank on the spectator? Are they endorsing the “end of film” discourse so prevalent in film criticism at present, or are they sardonically parodying it? It is difficult to discern a single sincere position taken in either the film or the public interventions made about it by the filmmakers (although only Peranson was present at Vienna, as Martin was on holiday with his parents in Spain); instead, La última película seems irrevocably imbued with the pre-emptive, “have it both ways” superiority of the ironic mode of address with which it is smothered.
A more earnest exploration of the anxieties besetting contemporary filmmaking was provided by another critic/curator-turned-filmmaker. Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater. Produced for André S. Labarthe’s Cinéma de notre temps series, Klinger opts for the straightforward premise of recording the two in a series of dialogues about their long-term friendship and the ways in which they are dealing with turning points in their artistic careers – something also noticeable in Benning’s own film Stemple Pass, which also screened at the Viennale. In spite of the clear gulf in their respective approaches to filmmaking, Linklater and Benning have a palpable affinity with one another, drawn to a large degree from their common status as outsiders in American cinema (along with a shared passion for baseball), and one of the main strengths of Klinger’s film is to convey this warm bond in a graceful, unobtrusive manner. At the same time, however, the work is a master class in film editing, gliding seamlessly yet intelligently from footage of the two serenely conversing in Linklater’s Texas ranch to archival material from a vast back catalogue of their respective œuvres.
Klinger’s film has certain interesting parallels with Samantha Fuller’s A Fuller Life (recounting the life story of her father, a certain maverick Hollywood filmmaker, with actors reading extracts from his autobiography) and Mati Diop’s Mille soleils (a hybrid work reflecting on the legacy of her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 landmark film Touki Bouki). As far as films-on-filmmaking are concerned, however, the most remarkable offering at the Viennale was Corneliu Porumboiu’s Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism (When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism). The opening shot, an 11-minute take from the back seat of a car prowling the streets of Bucharest, sets the tone for the film. A director (Paul) drives one of his actresses (Alina) home while conducting a monologue on his inability to work with digital: as a filmmaker, he needs limitations, and, if nothing else, film reels provide a limitation to the duration of the shot (11 minutes, as we know). Most of the rest of the Metabolism’s shots refrain from dilating out beyond this length, but Porumboiu largely adopts the one-scene-one-shot approach that is a marker of much Romanian New Wave cinema (and contemporary filmmaking in general), as the nebbishy Paul attempts to seduce Alina. In order to prolong the shoot, he thus feigns a stomach ulcer, and uses the extra time to interminably rehearse a minor scene with Alina. The plot, however, is merely a thin pretext for Porumboiu to issue forth a number of observations revolving around the ontological realism of the cinema (that old chestnut!): whether overtly, as with the opening scene, or in more coded fashion, such as an exchange in a Chinese restaurant in which Paul, expatiating on the use of chopsticks, proclaims that content is determined by the instruments deployed. While Porumboiu claims inspiration from Hong Sang-soo, Rohmer and Fellini, I can not help but feel that the film’s dialogues owe more, if anything, to the work of Larry David: one exchange in particular, about the penis ruining the capacity for men to be aesthetically pleasing when naked, seems lifted straight out of Curb Your Enthusiasm (and I say this as a form of unadulterated praise, great fan of the show that I am). The most intriguing moments come, however, in Metabolism’s climactic scene – a worthy parallel to its counterpart in Porumboiu’s earlier Politist, adjectiv (Police, adj., 2009). Paul tries to convince his wary producer that the ulcer is gone, and shows a video of his intestinal tract as proof, but is met with a barrage of objections: the footage has been doctored, the ulcer is out of the frame, there is surely a hidden cut somewhere… Who among us, indeed, can really put their faith in the veracity of the cinematic image anymore?
Similar questions were asked with respect to Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana – another production by the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory based in Harvard, which, in the wake of the critical euphoria surrounding Leviathan, was given an extensive sidebar at Vienna. Like Porumboiu, Spray and Velez shoot on film, precisely for the limitations it provides (though unlike Metabolism, Manakamana was screened on DCP). The filmmakers take their 16mm camera to a cable car in Nepal, connecting the Manakamana temple to a nearby town, and simply holds it in position for the entire length of the 10-minute ride, as the fellow passengers go about their business within the gondola. Nothing would have been easier than to have installed a hidden digital camera to capture the same footage, but the film creatively works with the challenge: each ride equals a reel of film, which is transitioned into the next shot using Rope-style effects (passing to a black space before cutting, so that the edit is unnoticeable), and even the whirring of the camera can be heard on the soundtrack throughout Manakamana. But the biggest self-imposed limitation comes with the presence of the camera itself: rather than capturing a random smattering of people unawares, Spray and Velez elect to use their own acquaintances, who act for the camera to varying degrees of self-awareness. There was probably no other solution available to the filmmakers – can anybody really be “natural” when they know they are being filmed? – but the strategy significantly mutes much of the fascination the film could have held for the spectator.
By contrast, Philippe Garrel’s La Jalousie was a masterful work. I have a simple rule of thumb for Garrel’s films, which is almost always reliable: when they are in black and white, they are incredible; in colour, however, for whatever enigmatic reason, his work is significantly impoverished. After the disappointment of Un été brûlant, it was with alacrity that I learnt that his new film would be en noir et blanc. Indeed, thanks to veteran cinematographer Willy Kurant, La Jalousie presents the same ashen vision of Paris that is common to Garrel’s best work, from Marie pour mémoire (1967) to L’enfant secret (1982) and Les amants réguliers (2005). That the new film has a heavily autobiographical strain to it is, of course, of no surprise to anyone familiar with Garrel’s work, but this time the film-à-clef is taken in a curious direction: here, Garrel’s son, Louis, plays a character based on his father, Maurice, while the character based on Philippe himself is played by a nine-year-old girl. Although set in the present, La Jalousie centres on an episode taking place in the 1950s, when Maurice, a struggling actor, left Philippe’s mother for another woman (Claudine in the film, played by Anna Mouglalis). Progressing in elliptical fashion, the story leads up to an emotionally devastating scene where Claudine confronts Louis with their common acts of infidelity inside a monstrously oversized 16th arrondissement apartment. But even with this subject matter (and the inevitable suicide attempt by Louis), the 76-minute film takes on the air of a fairytale, a quality aided no doubt by the fact that much of it unfurls from the child’s point of view. In the end, it is actually one of the most accessible films in Garrel’s œuvre – as the enjoyment of the young audience packing into the Gartenbaukino for the screening I attended attests.
Shinji Aoyama is known for his adulation for Garrel, but his film Tomogui (Backwater) is of a markedly different character to the aesthetic of his earlier work, which were dominated by roving long-takes, and edges distinctly towards the realm of melodrama. Based on a contemporary novel (its literary origins are self-evident) and taking place at the time of emperor Hirohito’s death in the late 80s, the film charts the maturation of Toma, an adolescent boy who, over the course of a series a dalliances in an abandoned shrine with the angelic Chigusa, discovers to his disgust that the sadistic strain of his sexually violent father also runs through his own veins. This Zola-esque biological determinism can only lead to a tragic outcome, and while Aoyama handles the progression to the doomed denouement with skill, the film is almost too neo-classical for its own good.
Nonetheless, Asian cinema was strongly represented at the Viennale. Hong Sang-soo’s recent prolific streak resulted in the Korean auteur being present with two films at the Viennale. I have already written on the serene state of cinematic perfection reached with Nugu-ui ttal-do anin Haewon (Nobody’s Daugher Haewon) on the occasion of its Berlinale premiere, and Uri Sunhi (Our Sunhi), having debuted at Locarno, tranquilly pursues the course that Hong has carved for his work. Like Haewon, Sunhi is told from the perspective of its eponymous heroine, as she negotiates a choice between three potential romantic partners. As with just about every Hong film, one of the main characters is a middle-aged film studies professor, who provides one of the film’s strongest comic moments with his less than effusive recommendation letter for Sunhi’s application to an American graduate program. Hong arranges matters so that Sunhi and all three of her suitors cross paths in a park bedecked with autumnal foliage, and the wryly comic results are so deftly handled as to be worthy of a 1930s Lubitsch film.
With the 4-hour epic Norte, hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, The End of History), Lav Diaz adds another film-fleuve to his corpus. Fabian is a contemporary Raskolnikov: an insufferable intellectual who peppers his conversations with anglicised post-modern buzz-words. Having dropped out of law school, Fabian’s nihilism leads him to a murder a local pawnbroker, but Diaz departs from the Dostoyevsky novel by inculpating Joaquín, a working-class father who, in spite of his demonstrable innocence, receives a life sentence for the crime. While Diaz is renowned as an exponent of “slow cinema”, the plot actually moves at a rather brisk pace, as the filmmaker follows both characters in their respective descents into the abyss, and in terms of its narrative scope and thematic grandeur, Norte comes close to truly attaining a novelistic quality, worthy of the authors to whom Diaz looks for inspiration.
As far as cinematic ambition is concerned, however, Diaz pales alongside Tsai Ming-liang, present at the festival with Jiao you (Stray Dogs). After 2009’s Visage (Faces) was (justly) reviled by critics, Tsai entered a period of hiatus, punctuated only by a couple of shorter works, including the hypnotic Walker (2012). Stray Dogs marks a return to the form that had earned him a rarefied place in the contemporary auteurist pantheon by the early 2000s, and has won such critical plaudits that one can only hope the Taiwanese director revokes his decision that this was his last work made for the cinema. One reviewer, indeed, announced that Stray Dogs was the single best film made since 2007, and stepped up to watch it for the third time in Vienna. On the basis of my single viewing of Tsai’s film, I can not be so sure – much about it still remains an impenetrable mystery to me, to the extent that I am still uncertain whether the three main female actresses in Stray Dogs play three different roles, or are simply different manifestations of the same character, à la Buñuel (it is probably of little importance, truth be told). Each shot of the film – immobile, impeccably framed, and often enduring close to the bounds of spectatorial tolerance – has an enigmatic, indeterminate relation to its neighbours, as we are transported between the worlds of mundane reality, dream and myth. In a scene that will inevitably constitute Stray Dogs’ major talking point, a distressed Lee Kang-sheng – who plays an impoverished father to two young children, eking out an existence as human billboard and squatting in various abandoned buildings – maniacally tears an anthropomorphised cabbage to pieces, but it was the film’s penultimate shot, fixed on an obscure mural painted on the side wall of a derelict house, that left me truly haunted. There is much more to say about this immeasurably dense work, but it will have to wait until I have the opportunity for a repeat viewing.
In contrast to the triumphs coming out of Asia, the US films I managed to catch at the Viennale were more of a mixed bag. Like Hong, David Gordon Green had two films in the selection, of which the more recent, Joe, returned to the mix of quotidian neo-realism and gothic gruesomeness in a rural Southern setting that marked his earlier work. Despite some compelling performances – particularly by Nicholas Cage as the titular character, a gruff surrogate father to the impressionable 15-year-old Gary – the film remains a rather middling effort, but it is at least far less of a failure than Kelly Reichardt’s disagreeable Night Moves. An arthouse darling in the wake of Wendy and Lucy (2009), Reichardt’s new work sets its sights on eco-terrorists (who, after this year’s The East, seem to be having a rough time of it in Hollywood at present). While the film’s first hour is consistently tense, as Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard conspire to blow up an environmentally damaging dam, Reichardt then takes the storyline into trite, hackneyed territory, transforming Night Moves into a heavy-handed morality tale with the most banal of political messages.
For stimulating cinema coming out of the United States, Viennale audiences thus had to turn to an old hand, 83 year-old Frederick Wiseman. Turning his observational eye to the university, the documentary filmmaker’s 4-hour opus At Berkeley is so engrossing that I was disappointed when it ended so early. Yes, my personal position means I can associate more directly with the subject matter than most people, and while my institution’s efforts at neo-liberal cost-cutting are far less drastic than those faced at Cal, I can readily detect the same pressures, the same managerial doublespeak (the mention of “operational excellence” sent shivers down my spine), even the same characters. Wiseman has done the college circuit enough times to have a familiarity with the world of academia to a far greater degree than he does with, say, the world of a Parisian strip club, and his acquaintance with the milieu comes through strongly: I can categorically say that I have never seen another film that has so penetratingly uncovered the manifold mechanisms at work in the administration of a university.
Its slate of contemporary films alone would be enough for Vienna to have a privileged position on the festival map. Where the Viennale truly sets itself apart, however, is in its retrospective offerings, and I feel it is only too appropriate to conclude my report on this note. Indeed, as a budding young cinephile, I first became aware of the festival from the superlative catalogues the Film Museum produced for its exhaustive retrospective programs accompanying the festival. In many ways, however, 2013 was a special year for Vienna retrospectives. As noted above, the festival’s tribute to Will Ferrell was an inspired gambit, which paid off when they managed to snag Ferrell in person for a gala event on the last day of proceedings. On stage in the Gartenbaukino, the actor was visibly taken aback by the adulatory reception he garnered: not only had his buffoonish on-screen antics earned him a 10-film showcase from a respected European film festival, but, to his bemusement, he also learned that droves of Austrian postgraduate students were dedicating their doctoral theses to his work. Such scholarship may well be less preposterous than it sounds: the selection of films from Ferrell’s output showed that he does indeed have an auteurist streak, as themes, tropes and in-jokes recur throughout his work. That his œuvre should be highlighted at the same time as the Film Museum ran a comprehensive Jerry Lewis retrospective was of a welcome serendipity, giving festival-goers the opportunity to compare two American comedians who, despite the generation gap between them, have notable parallels in their comic sensibilities.
Beyond these two major selections, one-off revival screenings also featured prominently in the program. Bresson’s Lancelot du lac (1974) was selected as the last film shown at the Stadtkino, while the reason given for screening The Big Sky was simply “the pure pleasure and joy of cinema.” Le cousin Jules (1973), the recently restored marvel by Dominique Benicheti, was, with its patient, quiet observation of the gestures and rhythms of the daily life of an elderly rural French couple, another highlight. Pride of place, however, went to the program entitled “The Geography of the Labyrinth”, which juxtaposed two titanic serials from France: Louis Feuillade’s Tih-Minh (1918) and Jacques Rivette’s phantomic work Out 1 – Noli me tangere (1971). Clocking in at six-and-a-half and twelve-and-a-half hours respectively, their serpentine narratives and mammoth durations made even the works of Lav Diaz look minuscule in comparison. As cinematic experiences, both films had long been sought after by Mélisande and I, such that when the festival schedule was released, they were the first events pencilled into our agenda, regardless of whatever else might have been screening on those days; even with the intensity of our anticipation, neither of the two monumental films would disappoint. My only regret is that the format of this festival report does not allow me to go more deeply into the mysterious riches contained within both works.
By far the most magical moment of the festival, however, came at a special event in the middle of the marathon screening of Out 1. A roundtable promised to bring together critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose seminal article comparing Out 1 with Tih-minh was surely the springboard for the idea to screen the two films together), the film’s charismatic producer Stéphane Tchalgadjieff, and nouvelle vague icon Jean-Pierre Léaud – but, in view of his shaky health, whether Léaud would actually materialise was never a certain proposition. Nervous festival organisers were relieved, however, when the actor confidently strode onto the stage and delivered a string of impassioned anecdotes about working on the film and, perhaps most touchingly, about Rivette’s seminal role in teaching him about the cinema, with Léaud fondly recalling the countless evenings the two spent at the Cinémathèque together in the early 1960s. His monologue having drawn to a close, the actor bowed with typical aplomb to the rhapsodic audience in the Metro Kino, and disappeared into the wings. I felt privileged even to have been a witness to such a breathtaking event. If another festival hopes to displace the Viennale from its place atop my personal festival pyramid, it will be faced with a hard task trying to outstrip this enchanting occasion.
Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival
14 October – 6 November 2013
Festival website: http://www.viennale.at