Read beyond for my thoughts on films watched during the quietest stretch of the festival; days 6-9, which includes Chevalier, Letters From War, Desde alla, Suntan, Toni Erdmann, The Endless River, Magallanes and Apprentice. There are several in here that I didn’t like so much – but certainly none I am sorry I saw.
Chevalier, the latest film from Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg), which won the Best Film at the BFI London Film Festival, is a very perceptive, funny and efficiently scripted satire of masculinity, male competitiveness, the fragility of ego and insecurity. It is a very unusual movie, but the hilarious premise is played with such a deadpan wit that the often-alienating ‘Weird Wave’ humour cuts through consistently. I’m still laughing at sequences days later.
Six men on a fishing holiday aboard a luxury yacht decide to pass the time by playing a game to find out which amongst them is the best man ‘in general’. The game is called Chevalier, and in addition to competing in challenges individually selected by the men (including the measurement of penis sizes and the swiftness of putting together IKEA furniture) a completely arbitrary point system is created to judge how the men carry themselves in every aspect. This includes how they wear their hair, what they eat for breakfast, their sleeping method, what their cholesterol levels are, amongst many many others. The men challenge one another, make inquiries about their relationships, and simply observe, jotting down notes as they go.
The crew aboard the yacht are also given some brief but hilarious screen-time as they place bets on who they think will win. All of the actors are fantastic, but what I especially liked was the film’s construction; the editing between the group interactions, and the more private moments with the men as they express anxiety about their fractured masculinity. While the challenges could have been relayed one after the other; we aren’t even sure how to differentiate a ‘challenge’ from general attempts to show off and demonstrate skill. It is a technique that keeps it gripping, and ever-evolving, before reaching its ingeniously open conclusion.
Letters From War
In 1971 António (Miguel Nunes), a medical doctor, was drafted into the Portuguese Army to serve in one of the most violent zones of the Colonial War: East Angola. In this setting, he writes letters of love and desire to his pregnant wife Maria José (Margarida Vila-Nova) back in Portugal. These letters, read to the audience by Vila-Nova, convey a strong anti-war message as Antonio reveals his knowledge of his government’s brutal policies – and he shares his critical views.
Ivo M. Ferreira’s film just wasn’t for me, and I don’t have too much to say about it. I soon found myself distracted and surrendering to my desire to take long blinks, despite the gorgeous black-and-white visuals and the daring formal approach. From the producers of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu and Arabian Nights, but a thoroughly less inventive or successful work than either of those films. It begs the question: why this approach? Why lessen the impact of the often-enchanting imagery with an endless stream of voice-over narration that is so often completely-unrelated to the visuals. It asks a lot of the audience, and I expect only the very patient and attentive, with some education in the Colonial War, will take much from this.
The first film of the day wasn’t until 6pm – Childhood of a Leader, reviewed in detail here. In short: it is amazing.
I have to admit that I was distracted through much of the first act of the debut feature film from Venezuelan filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas. For one I wasn’t particularly engaged by the Venice Golden Lion winner, but I also had Childhood of a Leader still rattling around in my head. I admired the film’s nuance, and found the setting interesting, but struggled to accept some of the decisions made by both Armando (Alfredo Castro) and Elder (Luis Silva) as their unexpected relationship develops. Armando is a wealthy closeted middle-aged man who cruises the streets for young men to pay for look-but-don’t-touch sexual activities. When one of his clients, Elder, a street thug who works at a mechanic, assaults and robs him he tracks down the boy rather than report the attack. They build a strange and socially-forbidden friendship, which takes on some surprising twists and turns. This required more patience than I could muster at the time, but I didn’t find it particularly convincing.
Here’s a film that challenges you to find sympathy in a rather repulsive human being; and for a large part of the runtime it succeeds. Set on a small, sun-drenched Greek island, which is a swarm of hedonistic tourists during the summer months, the middle-aged Kostis (Makis Papadimitriou, Chevalier), has recently accepted a job as the resident doctor.
When the alluring Anna (Elli Tringou) and her troupe of free-spirited, hard-partying friends burst into his surgery one day, Anna nursing a graze, he finds himself invited along to the nude beach near their campsite. This becomes his ritual; clocking off at 3pm, grabbing some beers and taking a dip with his hot and frequently nude younger companions, before partying hard at one of the island’s many clubs. This brave re-invention of himself – a desperate desire to re-live his youth amidst the party paradise – at first is a source of liberation, but when his desire for Anna turns into a self-destructive obsession, things get ugly.
Director Argyris Papadimitropoulos shoots the many club sequences very well, and this unflinching depiction of risky identity-escapism blurs the lines of fault – Anna does lead him on, but his outright rejection of their wishes for him to leave them alone makes for awkward situations and reveals a concerning lack of self-awareness. The film is always building towards something terrible; and the unnerving culmination of his obsession does leave one desiring a shower, and not reflecting on the experience in a particularly fond way.
Does the film – a near three-hour Germany comedy – that generated so much buzz at the Cannes Film Festival live up to the hype? Yes. Personally, I was concerned that the brand of humour wouldn’t always translate to an Australian audience, but it consistently does. I didn’t even know what German humour was, and I don’t know how all this worked so well – it is all just so unusual. Maren Ade’s wonderful film, which inexplicably went home empty handed (save for the FIPRESCI prize) at Cannes, portrays a sweet, heartfelt, honest and completely engrossing father-daughter relationship, headlined by a pair of wonderful comic performances.
Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a now-retired music teacher with an ailing mother and a recently-deceased canine companion, is living with the regret of not seeing enough of his busy daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). She is working as a management consultant in Romania, advising a company how they can increase profits by laying off workers. Following a brief catch-up at her mother’s home Winfried sees right through Ines’ feigned happiness and declared contentedness – he believes she has lost her ‘humour’. Winfried decides to make a surprise visit to Bucharest, intruding into Ines’ life at every opportunity – sporting a terrible suit, crazy wig and hideous false teeth as his alter-ego, life coach “Toni Erdmann”. He bombards her, and her colleagues and contacts, with a barrage of jokes and strange gags, creating bold and provocative situations to challenge his Ines, to enhance her confidence, to question her life and re-evaluate the role her father should occupy in it.
On their journey together Winfried observes Ines struggle to cope with stress and lose her charisma, do drugs, unflatteringly and unnecessarily wield power, break off commitments and be generally unappreciative. Winfried endeavours to help Ines recover her humour; and help her answer the question: what do you live for? Toni is a warm, unexpected figure in the cold, distant, emotionless world, and while he sticks out like a sore thumb people are fascinated by him.
Both Simonischek and Hüller are brilliant – their comic timing giving the jokes a unique texture – but the excellent supporting cast of recurring characters are also completely on board with Ade’s vision. There is also great comic success drawn from the visual compositions – building expectation and anticipation for a surprise Toni appearance at the edge of the frame. The humour is mostly played straight – deadpan, and subtle – and I often found myself catching up on the jokes a few seconds later when the other characters react.
Ade’s observations are so astute, but even more so with Ines. While her frustrations often stem from her own mistakes, she still experiences sexism in the workplace, and this is treated with seriousness. While Ade plays other uniquely-female stresses (the struggle to zip up a dress) to comic effect. But, they key to this film is its sweetness – it loves the characters, and convinces you to love them too – and to tell its tremendously moving story it does whatever it wants. This was a unique experience that has only continued to grow on me even more.
The Endless River
Oliver Hermanus’ third feature film, which he declared was a love-letter to melodrama, is split into three chapters – focusing, though not exclusively, on the three central characters. Percy (Clayton Evertson) has just returned home to his wife Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) after a four-year prison stint for gang activity. In the same town, shortly after Percy’s release, Gilles’ (Nicolas Duvauchelle) family are subjected to horrific violence. As Gilles wallows in grief, and pressures the corrupt local authorities for information about the investigation, he and Tiny come together in unexpected ways.
Set in a world of post-apartheid gangsterism, The Endless River addresses the presence of unchecked criminals walking the streets and the nation’s troubling rehabilitation system, while also exploring themes of racial prejudice, authoritarian corruption and cyclical violence. However, this is a very strange love-letter/parable to the classic melodrama, with the old-Hollywood style credit typeface, and the operatic storytelling featuring tragedy, broken people, love, and revenge. This may be melodrama South African style, with a social/political consciousness, but I don’t think Hermanus ever stayed true to the film he lays out in the opening credits.
It is a captivating and well-acted film – in particular from Duvauchelle – but unfortunately manipulative with its revelations, and communication of information (not only within the film between characters, but for the audience). Prior to the film Hermanus discussed the film as being about the things unsaid between people – and yet a lot of the film’s drama stems from one character using their influence within the realms of the law and saying too much. What the character’s leave unsaid clouds their ability to trust one another, and the ensuing drama rests too heavily on those characters making those decisions. Often tough to accept. Some pieces in the swelling score gave me goosebumps, and the widescreen photography is rather stunning, though.
This moving and very accomplished debut feature from Salvador del Solar – who in the post-film Q&A session bravely answered the audience’s inquiries, revealed himself to be a very intelligent and articulate man – cleverly balances thriller elements with complex personal-redemption, with an astute conscious of Peru’s long-troubled history.
Taxi driver Magallanes (Damián Alcázar) struggles to get by, and spends his spare time taking care of his former military superior, a once-feared but now senile colonel (Federico Luppi) during the civil conflict in Ayacucho. When Magallanes encounters Celina (Magaly Solier), an Indigenous woman that sparks memories of a dark episode in his past, he becomes eager to help and protect her when he discovers that she is in trouble with some nasty loan sharks. He hatches a dangerous extortion scheme, with his sister and old war buddy, that threatens to unearth a history of terrible abuse.
What adds complexity to the story is a late revelation that forces you to think differently about Magallanes. While Luppi’s colonel has forgotten his actions, Magallanes has compartmentalised them, or rationally accepted that what he did was the right thing. When Celina remembers him and what he did for her, she isn’t grateful – as he expects her to be – but fears him. As a flawed hero seeking redemption he takes great risks; evading the law and threatening his relationships.
The film’s suspenseful sequences are very well constructed and keep the film gripping, but what possesses the emotional power is Celina’s survival – her strength to move on with her life, following her experiences. Fine performances from Alcázar and Solier, and smart direction, ensure that this political thriller leaves a lingering impact.
Apprentice, the second feature from Junfeng Boo, tells the story of Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), a 28-year-old prison guard who lives with his sister in modest circumstances. His parents have long passed away. When he is transferred to a new prison, Aiman becomes fascinated by an older warden named Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), who turns out to be the long-serving chief executioner of the prison. Working his way into his trust, Aiman is eventually asked to serve as his apprentice. But, Aiman harbours a secret; one that has had a profound effect on his family life, and one that will certainly influence his new role. As he further earns Rahim’s trust, he nervously awaits security clearance, with a paper-trail that could expose his secret.
This is a serviceable drama, but doesn’t meet the criteria of the Official Competition – it isn’t particularly bold or audacious filmmaking, although it does admirably challenge the morality of the death penalty (what’s the difference between executing people on Death Row, and murdering someone?), albeit on a simplistic level. Aiman’s relationship with his sister, and her leaving for Australia with her fiance, was sorely under-developed, and while the impact of capital punishment is explored through the executioners, the prisoners themselves are given next-to-no screen time.
It is further let down by plot contrivances, and blunt metaphors, and a fundamental lack of exploration of Aiman’s experiences at the prison prior his assignment as apprentice. Budget constraints and the Australian co-production involvement are clear – it was partly shot at the decommissioned facilities of Maitland Gaol and Parramatta Correctional Centre. I did appreciate the photography and the sound design – the haunting qualities of the Death Row wing of the prison – and there were a few quite nerve-wracking sequences. It does show potential, but didn’t stir too many feelings.
My last film of the day was Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, which I am still figuring out how I feel about. I will re-visit it and maybe write some thoughts after the festival. While I was mildly disappointed – I think it well shy of his best work – I did find it lovely, quietly contemplative, relatable and thoroughly enjoyed being a part of Jarmusch’s world, as he explores contentment of routine, the poetry of everyday and the tactility of art.