Penelope, gone

Pedro Almodóvar’ense Julieta was felicitously at home at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) – as the character is based on a Canadian woman named Juliet, the protagonist of Nobel Prize Winner Alice Munro’s three short stories (“Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence”) from her collection, Runaway1, who lives in Vancouver. Some critics have expressed scepticism at this unholy marriage: Almodóvar and Munro, isn’t it like oil and water? And, mind you, where is the vinegar? Has our favourite Spanish provocateur lost his bite? This is to forget that Almodóvar has had a long-standing interest in Munro’s work – a copy of Escapada, the Spanish translation of Runaway, appears in the luxurious abode of the Machiavellian plastic surgeon of La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In, 2011) – and an even longer-standing interest in the twisted umbilical cord that links to and estranges us from our mothers. As we are reminded in the stunning last shots, La piel, after all, is the story of a woman who has lost a son, Vicente, and is reunited with a daughter, Vera, even though the latter, in the film’s concluding line, reveals: “Soy Vicente”. There is no such concluding moment in Julieta, which, endearingly, ends up in a semi-Kiarostami trope, with a little car shot at a distance on a hill it seems ill equipped for. Almodóvar is still learning what it means to be a daughter. And learning from the best: Munro has had four daughters of her own (one of them died in infancy; another wrote a book about the experience of being Munro’s daughter) and has explored the lives of women – wives, lovers, mothers, daughters – with unmatched flair. So, we have a different figure as when Kelly Reichardt adapts short stories by Maile Meloy in Certain Women; Reichardt knows women from the inside out – and this allows her a bit of transgender transgression, such as turning the male protagonist of one of the stories into a young female ranch hand with queer leanings. Almodóvar knows women from the outside in – hence his passion for the female masquerade, the pastiche, the performance, identity switching and gender crossing. One of the pleasures of Julieta is to watch – as the story moves back and forth in time, in a very Munroesque fashion – the seamless, yet almost uncanny transition between the performance soulfully delivered by Emma Suárez (famous in particular for her work with Julio Medem) as present-day Julieta – the one who reflects, writes down the story, and is treated with the open ending in that little car – and the radiant physical presence of Adriana Ugarte as her younger self – having sex on trains at night, alluringly teaching classic literature to a bevy of adoring students and giving it all up to live with a sexy fisherman, giving birth, having jealousy feats, finding love and losing it. The well-trodden paths of the female-centric melodrama, with maternal accents, as Almódovar knows how to craft them.

Yet, there is Alice Munro, and, in her shadow, something not quite familiar springs out, something which may be new for the Spanish master: the cold tracks of the daughter. Why has Antía, the apple of her (widowed) mother’s eye, left? We can go, as Julieta does after her encounter with Beatriz, her daughter’s best friend as a teenager and one-time lover, through the catalogue of possible explanations: blaming her mother for her father’s death; trying to hide her temporary lesbianism; ordinary resentment on the part of a teenage girl… None of these hold water. No, the (confused, maybe unconscious) reason Antía left is that she didn’t have any other way to show her excessive love for her mother. A daughter-mother bond is predicated around a lack: the daughter is conflicted between a boundless love and resentment that her mother, lacking phallic power, couldn’t give it to her. The only weapon a young girl has is her own body, but, instead of using it as a war machine (as boys, young or old, are prone to do), she resorts to this most feminine of tools, its absence. La princesse lointaine of medieval romances, Proust’s Albertine disparue, Del Shannon’s “My Little Runaway” – our collective imaginary is filled with these fleeing femmes. Leaving is to hollow a space in the texture of desire, triggering regret and longing in the person who has been left. Yet turning one’s own body into the sign of an absence, a void, a non-existence, comes at a price that only women, maybe, can fully understand. And so some intelligent male directors have been listening to women – or reading their writings. The emotional impact of Feng Xiaogang’s Tangshan da dizhen (Aftershock, 2012), for example, does not come only from its epic representation of the destruction and loss of lives caused by the 1976 Tangshan earthquake but, equally, from the lonely trajectory of the girl who, twice, pretends to be dead to get back at a mother figure. Feng knew where to find the source of a well-rounded melodrama: a novel by the (female) Chinese Canadian writer Zhang Ling.2 Asked by rescue workers to chose between her two twins, stuck under a fallen beam during the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, Li Yuanni, stuck in her “Chinese mother” sense of propriety, opts for her son. The daughter, Fang Deng, miraculously survives, but shocked and angry by her mother’s decision, pretends to be mute and amnesiac when adopted by a military couple. Later she will transfer her resentment against her adoptive mother, and, becoming pregnant at the university, pull up another disappearing act. As Lacan famously established in Encore (1972-73), the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise represents what “the feminine” is for all of us: no matter how fast we’ll run after it, after each step we’ll make, it will have advanced a little further out of our reach. By making herself scarce, the daughter becomes “the eternal feminine” and turns her mother into a masculine figure, giving her, in a Joan Riviere figure, the phallus she never had, Love, for Lacan, is giving something you don’t have to somebody who doesn’t want it. The daughter, playing the princesse lointaine, intends to give her own absent phallus to her mother; but this is not what the mother wants. Talking about queerness… No wonder Almódovar felt at ease in such a story. I won’t dwell on the obvious differences between his take and Munro’s. In the movie, the men are much more present and much nicer; Julieta is more sexual than Juliet (the sex on the train is purely Almódovar’s invention); Antía has an explicit homosexual experience while Penelope (Juliet’s daughter) does not. More importantly, Munro’s talent lies in exploring Juliet’s intimate life, while Almódovar explores more thoroughly the vacant track left open by Antía’s departure. I had said that he was still learning what it meant to be a daughter. Except that, as we can see in the number of transgender characters blessed/afflicted with a mother that populate his cinema, he has spent a significant portion of his creative life thinking about it.

In the much-appreciated wealth of world cinema that the VIFF takes pride in offering us, I have elected, this year, to talk about daughters. Maybe because it’s time; we have become cinephiles under the magnificent shadows of the “ciné-fils”.3. Now it’s time to see what the daughters of cinema have to tell us.

Our Daughters in Argentina

To remain, for the time being, within a Spanish-accented male gaze of the daughters’ plight, I am deeply indebted to Alan Franey, VIFF’s former Director and current Director of International Programming, who, the day of my arrival, invited me to join him at the screening of Kéksakáliú, Gastón Solnicki’s ambitious first fiction feature. Born in 1978 in Buenos Aires to an immigrant Jewish family, Solnicki studied photography at New York University’s Tish School for the Arts, before realising two noted documentaries, that, like his latest film, find original ways to explore the liminal space between “being at home” and “being uprooted”, between Eastern Europe and Latin America, between music and the moving image. Süden (South, 2008) follows one of the most influential composers of contemporary music, Mauricio Kagel (1934-2008), as he travels back to Buenos Aires, where he was born to a Jewish family who had fled Russian pogroms in the 1920s. Kagel was also a man of the liminal space, positing himself between music composition and performance art, and having moved in 1957 to Cologne where he stayed until his death, he is usually described as a “German-Argentine composer”. Solnicki’s next feature, Papirosen (2011) was a first-person investigation of his family history, with tales of hiding in cemeteries, fleeing the Holocaust in Grodno4 and committing suicide out of melancholia once in the safety of Argentina. The film’s title comes from a well-known Yiddish song that has a very emotional effect on Victor, the filmmaker’s father, and had been written in 1922 by Herman Yablokoff (1903-81) about children peddling cigarettes in the streets of his native Grodno after being orphaned by pogroms.5 Papirosen is about the split of generations, and the gaze cast by the filmmaker onto his father. There is a daughter, too, his sister Yanina, on the verge of a divorce, which creates conflict with Victor…

Vancouver International Film Festival 2017

Kéksakáliú

The young women that populate the disconnected vignettes of Kéksakáliú seem unaware of whatever fraught history precedes them: they live in an eternal present of safe ennui and the impossibility of making choices. Properly cooking a squid is a major endeavour, and eating pasta with a badly prepared sauce a vexation. A number of scenes take place by a swimming pool, with signs stating that “Parents are responsible for the safety of their children” and where nubile beauties in bikinis are afraid of jumping into the water. Metaphor? It is less frightening to expose one’s body to the gaze than to plunge it into the messiness of life. Better stay on the shore, or not even go to the pool, as one of the first protagonists that we see, tanning herself in the yard of her apartment building, triggering her mother’s concern. “I am not a baby,” says the lass. “You will always be my baby,” responds the mother. Cutting the ties of childhood might be hard. Gradually, the “plot” tightens around one young lady, whom we discover at first gulping food out of a bowl under the covers of a large bed. A middle-aged man enters the room, urging her to “stop eating in [his] bed” and to “move out”. Undaunted the girl replies that she has no money to do so. A quarrel between lovers in the process of a messy separation? We realise that the man is no a fed-up older lover, but the (equally fed up) father of the damsel, who has no idea about what she wants to do with her life. Returning to school (o, where does one find the place to Xerox the reader)? Working in factory (boring and dirty)? The father seems a hard-working entrepreneur, maybe one of these European immigrants  who reinvented their lives once on Argentinian shores. The daughter is one of these Latin American millennials, lost as they may.

So Solnicki, in a stroke of sympathetic genius, gives her something to really worry about. Kéksakáliú is Hungarian for “Bluebeard” and it’s the first word of the original title of Béla Bartók’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára)6 A minimalist, symbolist fable about a newlywed couple negotiating the right to privacy, Bluebeard’s castle is one step removed from Barbe bleue, the French folktale of polygamy and murder rewritten by Charles Perrault in 1697, but one salient trait remains: the new wife’s desire to open all the doors of the castle, her husband’s reluctance to do so, and a young woman’s longing to marry a paternal figure (even if it turns out to be a bad, or remote father). The link to Solnicki’s film is even more tenuous – in addition, perhaps, to the intent to anchor his fictional vignettes in something that happened long ago in Eastern Europe: the young woman’s bashful curiosity, as she stands at the threshold of a terra incognita that she finds threatening (adulthood? men’s desire? the current state of the world?).

Did I say that the film was a beauty? Like Kagel, Solnicki understands that music is about performance, about inhabiting a space, and, like a poet, he knows that a face is a landscape. He has worked with his two talented DPs, Diego Poleri and Fernando Lockett, to compose widescreen images of the mixture of baroque and mundane that make the architecture of contemporary Argentina, as well as intriguing close-ups of his young protagonists – and as the film unfolds, he displays an uncanny grace to position their bodies into their living spaces, the architecture or the landscapes they traverse. Replete with both hidden melancholy and dry humour, Kéksakáliú is a little gem of a film.

The Daughter from Mongolia

The Dragons and Tigers section also offered an original take on the daughter’s plight, with Gaobie (A Simple Goodbye), the second feature of a young woman (born in 1984) graduate from the Beijing Film Academy. A modern family in Beijing. The parents are separated (the father “loves somebody else”), the mother is active, vibrant, detached, totally involved in the travel agency she has founded; the daughter, Shanshan (played by the filmmaker), comes back from the UK. She is ill-at-ease in her role as a Chinese student abroad, sulky, dissatisfied with life in general, and probably considering dropping her studies altogether. She also tries to put some distance between her and her boyfriend in London, but the latter (a young Chinese man too) follows her back home, with consequences that are less than savoury. Shanshan has come back to visit her father (Tu Men), who, diagnosed with cancer, has to move back in his previous apartment to be taken care of by his ex (in which we recognise a chic and urban version of the Mongolian actress Ai Liya, revealed in Ermo (1994) by Fifth Generation director Zhou Xiaowen). In-between two hospital stays, this man, obviously used to get his way, is grumpy, makes fun of the “home remedies” ministered by his womenfolk (his mother and sister), and keeps on drinking, smoking and gambling with his old buddies. Unable to understand Shanshan, he is aggressive with her, criticising the way she dresses (which, indeed, is a bit extreme).

Vancouver International Film Festival 2017

A Simple Goodbye

Then one day, he says, “I want to go back to the studio”. And what he is talking about is the Inner Mongolia Film Studio, whose director he once was, and at this point we understand Yun’s film as the reconstruction of a not-so-distant past. Brilliant graduates of the Beijing Film Academy, her parents, Saifu and Mailisi, together directed landmarks in the history of Mongolian cinema – including a remarkable Czyngis-chan (AKA Yidaitianjiao Cheng jisihan in pinyin) (Genghis Khan, 1997), that explored the Oedipal bond between the warrior and his mother, and was an Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Film in 1998. Tu Men played Genghis Khan and Ai Liya his mother. We also notice that “Mailisi Filmco Ltd” is credited as the producer of the film, and things start to take shape.

With China’s opening to market economy, and the 1993 reform ordering the state-owned studios to turn in a profit, films addressing the culture of ethnic minorities had to yield to more mainstream genres. Saifu (1953-2005) gave up the leadership of the studio, and the family retreated to Beijing where Degena, born in Mongolia, eventually grew up. A sullen 20 year-old during her father’s illness, she now reshuffles the cards and tries to analyse what went wrong (or not) in the last few months of her relationship with him.

As a filmmaker, she focuses on the issue of the gaze. What is it that both father and daughter see in each other when they were looking? In an acutely directed sequence, Shanshan rushes into the hospital at night, clad in platform shoes and super-tight shiny jeans. She does not see her father, standing in the hallway. In an earlier sequence, we had seen the actor shave his head as a reaction against the secondary effects of the chemotherapy. Yet, there is more than “not recognising” one’s father because he has lost his hair. The man literally represents a blind spot in Shanshan’s field of vision. Then he ask her if they can go out together “to get some food”, for he is hungry. They play a drinking game, all the time not really looking at each other. “What happened to your hair?” she says, rather insensitively. Instead of replying, he gazes at an invisible object off-screen. In the next sequence, Shanshan is the witness of a humiliating moment in which her father has to discuss his bowel movements with the team of attendant doctors and interns. He clearly would have preferred for his daughter not to hear this, but, stoically, soldiers on, answers the questions truthfully and pretends he feels nothing.

His death is kept off-screen, the father-daughter relationship is not really solved except at one moment when she releases a bird to atone for the order he had given on a shoot for a horse to plunge to his death. Karma. Even modern, uprooted Mongolians believe in this. And it’s only later, when she has become a mother herself, that Shanshan sees her father, and the beauty of the culture he embodied. As she is looking at the portrait of a horse with her infant daughter, a cut, preceded by the sound of galloping hooves, introduces us to the sequence of a 1996 film directed by Saifu and Mailisi, credited at the bottom of the image as The Brooks7. A herd of several hundred horses crossing the screen, Mongolian chanting, two young men galloping together, tossing a gourd at each other and drinking while performing acrobatics on horseback, with a sense of lightness and physical freedom that is contagious. By revisiting her father’s work (we can only assume that, as a Beijing teenager wanting to “fit in” with her Han Chinese schoolmates, Shanshan had little fondness for such “ethnic” films), the director not only finally “sees” her father but recovers her lost identity as a Mongolian filmmaker – even though she may be shooting a film primarily in Beijing.

Ines in Bucharest

The question of seeing/not seeing, recognising or not, posturing, presenting the fake to uncover the truth, is at the core of Maren Ade’s 162 minute exhilarating comedy, Toni Erdmann. As much as a film between father and daughter, this is a film about the travails and joy of performance and the power of cinema – seen from the point of view of the daughter. The title is the first mystification, for Toni Erdmann does not exist. It is the nom de guerre adopted by a retired music teacher called Winfried (Peter Simonischek), whom we first see bamboozling a hapless mail man telling him that the “Toni Erdman” to whom the package is addressed is his brother, then reappearing with a wig and a set of false teeth, confusing and horrifying the poor man further by “confessing” he is just out of jail for mail fraud. Winfried has a daughter, the blond, smart, elegant Ines (Sandra Hüller), who, having housed her sense of identity in her professional competence (she is a business consultant) takes herself seriously and has, apparently, very little sense of humour (except in a very droll erotic situation). Like most women who have reached a certain level in their jobs, she works all the time, just to keep afloat, does more than her male colleagues, and subordinates her sex life to her professional life. A “good” father, Winfried is worried about this. Meaning that he finds this frankly abhorrent and tries to find ways to unsettle all this seriousness.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2017

Toni Erdmann

When Ines takes a job in Bucharest, we see the full range of her talents. She gives a presentation about corporate strategy clad in a black business suit and treacherous high heels – triggering echoes of the costumes donned by Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – “the best dressed CIA operator I have seen”, had said my colleague filmmaker/scholar Thom Andersen. Maybe only a woman director understands the role played by clothing in the performance of one’s professional life… which is why the film’s nude sequence at the end is so refreshing and surprising. It is also in Bucharest that we see the full range of Ines’s stress. When back at home, she has to steal a few moments of sleep and then take some professional connections night clubbing in the city. This is the moment Winfried decides to pay his daughter an impromptu visit. As in A Simple Goodbye, this triggers first a moment of blindness in Ines: she passes by him in the lobby of the building she inhabits. Did she not see him? Ines is not as young and confused as Shanshan: she’ll later say that she was with colleagues and could not greet him at the time. Did she fake not seeing him? Or did she fake pretending not to see him, while, in reality…? The film is constructed around these questions – both protagonists performing a role in a strange pas-de-deux in which they try, like once Achilles and the tortoise, to address each other while simultaneously getting closer and far away from each other.

Things don’t go well at first, and Winfried, apparently good-naturedly, agrees to leave – only to reappear as “Toni Erdmann” in a posh restaurant where Ines is entertaining. This time, he pretends to be the German Ambassador, and charms the pants out of a couple of elderly women who believe him – or do they? (Nothing is what it seems to be in the film). Now Ines is involved in some serious multi-tasking: she has to manage her professional responsibilities, her awkward sex life, her entertainment duties, and the unexpected pranks/apparitions of her father. To her surprise, “Toni Erdmann”, often a nuisance, throwing her off-guard and causing her to make mistakes, sometimes turns out to be an asset and an ally. Yet, what really drives Ines crazy is the question that Winfried poses her “Are you happy?” We see Hüller’s beautiful, tense face: she is not happy. And deep down, she must have felt she “owed” her father to be happy herself. But women in the corporate world are supposed to be bright, competent, efficient, and ruthless – “happy” is no part of the job description.

As Winfried’s antics continue, Toni Erdmann takes a serendipitous path toward the picaresque, and the disjointed humour. This includes a trip into the Romanian shticks, an impromptu nude birthday party, an ape-like ”Kukeri” (distant echoes of Renoir’s La Règle du jeu?)8, a change of job, a return to Germany, a funeral… At the end, of course, nothing is solved, more costumes will be worn (and, for a seasoned actor, nudity is a costume too), the gap between father and daughter is still open, but a little more playful, and they can look at each other in the eyes.

The Romanian Daughter

Also taking place in Romania, this time told from the point of view of the father (the teenage daughter, Eliza, excellently played by Maria Dragus – first seen as a teen in Michael Haneke’s Das weiße Band/The White Ribbon, 2009 – remains a cipher) is Cristian Mungiu’s Baccalauréat (Graduation) that plunges into some troubled waters of ethical ambiguity. Dr Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) could have left Romania when they were young, after the 1989 revolution that toppled the Ceaușescu regime. Instead they decided to stay, and they are now dealing with a dysfunctional post-socialist society, fraught with economic problems, corruption and a seemingly barred future. Romeo may be particularly invested in being a  “good father” because he is not a good husband. Estranged from his wife, he has an affair with Sandra (Malina Manovici), a single mother who is also a teacher in Eliza’s school (double betrayal). His dream for Eliza is to get her to study in the UK – but, to secure the scholarship lined up for her, she has to get excellent grades at the final high school exam… as well as sever ties with her slacker biker boyfriend Marius (Rares Andrici) who wants her to stay in Romania because he loves her.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2017

Graduation

Strange events happen: a brick is thrown in the window of the apartment, Romeo’s car window is smashed, and then Eliza is nearly raped near the school. Marius was nowhere to be seen to protect her, Eliza broke her wrist while defending herself, and is now pretty shattered. Afraid that her fragile emotional state may have negative effects on the results of her exam, Romeo tries to find solutions. In his country, in his situation, this means “greasing the system”, finding out who owes you a favour and whose favours you can negotiate. A slippery slope that Romeo starts gliding on, first with Eliza’s reluctant cooperation, then on his own, and finally facing the consequences as the rules of post-socialism are not as clear-cut than those who preceded them. Graduation is a more sombre film than the ones mentioned above, but it bears in common the fact that, in father-daughter relationships – as in the ones between mother and daughter – there is no pre-written script. Everyone wears a mask, everyone fumbles, love is never enough, it’s too much, or not enough, or misguided. And we should be grateful for a festival like Vancouver for offering us so much food for thought.

Vancouver International Film Festival
29 September – 14 October 2016
Festival website: https://www.viff.org/Online/default.asp

 

Endotes

  1. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004
  2. Zhang Ling: Yu Zhen (The Aftershock), Shanghai: East China Normal University Press, 2009
  3. Serge Daney (1944-1992) used to describe himself as a “ciné-fils” (“cine-son”), a term famously reprised in Pierre-André Boutang and Dominique Rabourdin’s interview film, Itinéraire d’un ciné-fils (Journey of a Cine-Son), that, shot a few months before his death, is considered his testament. Daney also uses the term ciné-fils in one of his last texts, Le Travelling de Kapo, published in English as The Tracking Shot in Kapo, by Senses of Cinema: http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/feature-articles/kapo_daney/#3
  4. Now in Belarus, Grodno was located in the Russian Empire and attributed to Poland at the end of WWI. It is estimated that before WWII, 37% of its population were Jewish.
  5. Born Chaim A. Yablonick, Yablockoff eventually moved to the US in 1924, and became a prominent figure of the Yiddish theatre on Second Avenue in New York in the 1930s and 40s.
  6. Written in 1911, the opera was revised in 1912, a new ending added in 1917, and the first performance took place in 1918 at the Royal Opera House in Budapest. It is worth mentioning here that film theoretician Béla Balázs (1884-1949), who was a friend of Bartok’s, wrote the libretto.
  7. I have not seen this film, nor been able to find it in Saifu’s and Mailisi’s filmography. Topic for further research
  8. Winfried actually wears a Kukeri costume, that looks, indeed, like a giant ape. Originally a Kukeri costume was worn in Bulgaria to perform rituals against evil spirits.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.