James Fotopoulos, There, 2014, HD video, color, 103 minutes.
BEWARE OF MOVIES in which actresses spend most of their time in eyelet-trimmed white cotton nightdresses, as does Sophie Traub in James Fotopoulos’s The Given (2015). According to the filmmaker, The Given is about “acting, performance, and abuse.” Fair enough. It is indeed about those things, but in the negative—how not to act, perform, or attempt to deal with abuse, given or received. One wonders if that was Fotopoulos and Traub’s intent. If so, the bad acting, staging, and psychodrama text could have had a bit more satiric bite.
In any case, Fotopoulos is a notably talented, prolific, and obsessive filmmaker. Formerly based in Chicago, he created a stir in 2000 with Migrating Forms, a celluloid eruption of unconscious horror and disgust more nauseating than David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Many feature-length and short films followed. I have a deep bookshelf entirely devoted to Fotopoulos’s homemade VHS and DVD screeners. His short movies are sometimes witty, sometimes lyrical, sometimes borderline abstract but nearly always insistently personal, though his early features paled compared to Migrating Forms.
With Alice in Wonderland (2010), Fotopoulos moved into more complex intellectual terrain, finding the roots of twentieth-century modernism in nineteenth-century paracinema photography and pre-Freudian dreamscape revelations of the unconscious. The film was projected as an installation titled Alice at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery in 2011. A meditation on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by way of Henry Savile Clarke and Walter Slaughter’s 1886 musical Alice in Wonderland: A Dream Play for Children, Fotopoulos’s Alice is at once dense and ephemeral. Like a mandala, it focuses on a medium close-up of Alice, or rather of two different depictions of Alice. In Part One, she resembles Carroll’s photographs of the dark-haired Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for the Alice books. In Part Two, she suggests the blonde Alice of John Tenniel’s illustrations for both Wonderland and Looking Glass.
Swirling around her, as if emanating from or impinging on her psyche, are hundreds of drawings—bits of body parts, strange animals, featureless faces—as well as single words and short phrases. More than a muse or a vehicle for Carroll, this Alice is her own woman, her thoughts and desires responsive to the transformations of art and science in the late nineteenth century. Sarah Evans, who embodies Alice, was not a professional actor, but the camera loves her face, which conveys, with almost no conventionally expressive movements—no smiles, grimaces, or eye-widening—a mercurial array of feelings and thoughts. But perhaps she is thinking and feeling nothing at all and our reading is the result of the images with which Fotopoulos surrounds her.
In his two recent features There (2014) and The Given, Fotopoulos employs some professional actors, with mixed results. The former, by far the more interesting of the two, achieves an enveloping paranoia within a controlled, minimalist mise-en-scene. Xander O’Connor plays a war veteran with PTSD who becomes a homeland terrorist. At least one of the women in his life also suffers PTSD, the result of sexual abuse. To indicate their unresolved traumas, both characters speak in short bursts as if they were highly resistant psychotherapy patients. While O’Connor, a forceful presence, clamps his lips shut after every four- of five-word phrase, Sarah Brooks, as the abused woman, repeatedly gasps midsentence through widely parted lips, as if repeatedly horrified by her memories.
I’m not sure if Fotopoulos draws a gender distinction regarding the open- or closed-lip defense against buried trauma, but Traub, the star of The Given, spends most of the film with her mouth open and her arms undulating around her head like an expressionist dancer playing a sleepwalker. Actually, sleepwalking figures in the scenario, which also concerns an actress who goes to uncomfortable places to prepare for an audition, pondering her memories of abuse in long incantatory speeches. I would like to let Traub off the hook—once you agree to work for a director in a film, you abdicate control over what will end up on the screen—but since The Given is largely a showcase for an actress playing an actress, I suspect she was highly complicit in the result. Fotopoulos and Traub might speak to this issue when they appear in dialogue at Microscope on Monday, March 23 at 7 PM.
THE ROLE OF CINEMATOGRAPHER has its perks, not unlike those of any of the ancillary creative roles in filmmaking. Once you’ve shown that you know your business, you generally won’t lack for work until you’re ready to retire, and you’ll likely have a longer and busier career than a director starting out at the same time, for directors are more celebrated and, at the same time, more liable. The downside, if you consider it one, is that you’ll rarely be taken as seriously as an artist. Writing about the Spanish-Cuban director of photography Nestor Almendros, David Thomson delivered an ultimatum which encapsulates accepted wisdom: “Few cinematographers have demonstrated what I would call a single creative character.”
An intermediary and a buffer, the cinematographer helps keep the mystique of the director intact. While the director is allowed to play the role of conjuror who summons his art from thin air, the cinematographer seems decidedly earthbound, limited to recording the things that are. The cinematographer, as a result, may be connected to a place in a way that directors rarely are. As much as the body of work produced by the late Gordon Willis, subject of a memorial tribute at the Museum of the Moving Image which has only just ended, is inextricably tied to the New York City in which he lived and worked, so too does Gabriel Figueroa’s cinema belong to Mexico.
In “Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film,” a show at El Museo del Barrio, the question of whether or not Figueroa is the “author” of the 200+ movies on which he worked in a fifty-year career is almost beside the point. Instead, Figueroa’s career in image-making is placed within a broader cultural context, alongside parallel historical developments, new ways of representing Mexico which had been emerging in the graphic arts, and the changing image of Mexico that the country broadcast to itself before, during, and after its “Golden Age” of studio filmmaking in the 1940s and ’50s.
First conceived in 2007 on the centennial of Figueroa’s birth, “Under the Mexican Sky” toured Mexico before appearing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in late 2013. Its appearance at the Museo, for whom this is the first film-themed gallery exhibition, is its premiere east coast appearance. The experience begins with an immersion in images from Figueroa-shot films beamed onto the wall by six ceiling-mounted projectors. I’ve seen variations on this ta-da “splash-panel” effect in cinema-related gallery installations before, as in MoMA’s 2013 “Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema,” though there is a greater method evident here, as certain reemerging locations and visual motifs ripple through simultaneously projected scenes: images of neon urbanity and chic nightclubs; the desolate Nonoalco-Tlateloco railroad zone; or votive candles, an ocean of light in Roberto Gavaldón’s Macario (1959).
In the galleries ahead, these motifs aren’t given as the personal expressions of an obsessive individualist, but as a network of symbols that were struck upon as icons of mexicanidad (Mexicanness)—“part of the network of appropriation, interchange, and reinterpretation that generated twentieth century Mexican visual identity and culture,” per one piece of wall text, in the years following the 1910–1920 Revolution.
After passing through a gallery which addresses Figueroa’s apprenticeship as a still photographer, illustrated with glamor shots of Mexico City celebrities taken in something like the style of Cecil Beaton, one proceeds through a series of rooms in which Figueroa’s images of Mexico are put into dialogue with those by other artists, both foreign and domestic. Of the former, particular weight is given to the work of Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, whose photographs for Anita Brenner’s book Idols Behind Altars drew Sergei Eisenstein to Mexico to begin his ultimately uncompleted-but-hugely-influential project, ¡Que viva México! (1932)
In a gallery dedicated to “Clouds,” heavenward-looking excerpts from Figueroa-shot films are projected in between scenes from ¡Que viva México! and Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s The Wave (1936). The walls of the room are decorated with works by the Mexican landscape painter Dr. Atl, whose “curvilinear perspective” is cited as an influence on Figueroa, famed for his canopies of dark sky fleeced with blindingly white clouds which, we read, were achieved by using infrared filters “to counteract the layer of the atmosphere.”
Figueroa’s motifs, including those skies, are given as belonging to a common cultural heritage built from a shared stock of images connoting mexicanidad. Another of these symbols is the spiny maguey, or agave, plant, which is to Mexico what the longhorn is to Texas—one nook of the exhibit places enlargements depicting the maguey from Figueroa’s films next to similar photographs and a sketch, Under the Maguey, by Jose Clemente Orozco. Other recurring images include the bandolier ammunition belt and the calaveras Day of the Dead skeleton, iconographic tropes that are consigned to subsections dedicated to “Revolution” and “Requiem,” respectively.
In historical hindsight, the quest for mexicanidad has in some eyes taken on the character of an aesthetic conspiracy pursued with government connivance, a legacy to be rejected or at least reacted against. And the argument can be made that Figueroa did his best work when pushed outside of his comfort zone, as in his collaborations with Luis Buñuel during the Spanish filmmaker’s long, on-again-off-again stretch working in the Mexican film industry, beginning with Los Olvidados (1950). The modest section dedicated to the Buñuel-Figueroa films cites a telling excerpt from the director’s memoir: “[Figueroa] had prepared an aesthetically irreproachable frame, with the Popocatépetl volcano in the background plus the indispensable white clouds. What I did was to simply turn the camera around and focus on a landscape that was quite commonplace but that seemed to be more realistic, more true to life. I have never been fond of prefabricated beauty.”
Far more than the Buñuel films, the works best represented here are the twenty-three movies that Figueroa shot for Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, including Maria Candelaria (1943), La perla (1945), and Río Escondido (1947). (Maria Candelaria, which contains a character based on Diego Rivera, is another instance of the close connection in Mexico between filmmakers like Fernández and Figueroa and those in the plastic arts like Orozco, Rivera, and Leopoldo Méndez, whose engraving illustrations for the title cards of Figueroa-shot films are on display here.) Fernández, probably most familiar to English-speaking audiences from his roles in various Sam Peckinpah films, was a director of unsurpassed renown in his homeland, so certain of his contribution to mexicanidad that he once claimed “There only exists one Mexico: The one I invented.”
Figueroa’s images are the fulcrum around which the exhibition turns, while the focus only returns to the man himself in its final galleries. In a room which also contains altars to Figueroa’s work in Mexican “new wave” cinema and his colorful feature-film adaptations of Telenovela soap operas—both rather vaguely filled out—one finds a biographical timeline of Figueroa’s “Life in Film,” which refers to his apprenticeship with cinematographer Gregg Toland in 1930s Hollywood, as well as the fact that he was named by Robert Rossen and Elia Kazan to the House Un-American Activities Committee, presumably one reason that his ventures into American movies were only brief and fitful.
This precedes a concluding “visual biography” that lines both walls of the hallway leading out of the exhibition space, comprising two chronologically-arranged collections of photographs showing Figueroa on-set. One wall features close-ups of Figueroa who, as you head toward the exit, can be seen to grow older, though always trim and dapper, and usually with his eye screwed into a camera viewfinder. On the other wall are pictures with Figueroa as one figure among many in the teeming crew. It is the defining dichotomy of an exhibition that describes filmmaking, like all cultural production, as an effort at once individual and collective.
Thomas Cailley, Les combattants (Love at First Fight), 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes. Madeleine (Adèle Haenel).
CELEBRATING ITS TWENTIETH EDITION THIS YEAR, the “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series points to both the particular problems and pleasurable results of film curation based solely on national origin. As in previous installments, 2015’s roundup of recent Gallic movies is larded with strenuously mediocre (and worse) fare from veterans and newcomers alike, whether behind or in front of the camera. But the program, which this year comprises twenty-two features, continues to serve an important role by providing New York audiences with what may be their only chance to see adventurous, genre-defying works that are still without US distribution (and unlikely ever to secure it).
That’s certainly the case with Antoine Barraud’s spellbinding Portrait of the Artist (an inexplicably banal retitling of the more evocative Le dos rouge—“The Red Back,” a reference to the psychosomatic rash spreading over the protagonist’s torso). Co-produced by the Centre Pompidou, the film concerns the labyrinthine quest of an auteur named Bertrand—played by the acclaimed French director Bertrand Bonello, whose slinky, heady YSL biopic, Saint Laurent, opens stateside in May—to find the artwork that best exemplifies the concept of the “monstrous,” the subject of his next movie. Guiding the filmmaker on his monomaniacal quest through the galleries of, to name just a few institutions visited, the Museum of the History of Medicine and the Musée Gustave Moreau is Célia, a gnomic art historian who is incarnated in some scenes by Jeanne Balibar and in others by Géraldine Pailhas. The tactic of having two actresses inhabit the same role clearly nods to Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), which deploys a similar conceit; other cinephilic salutes include a film-within-the-film reimagining of Vertigo. These tributes, rather than appearing slavishly derivative, instead add to Portrait’s scene-by-scene unpredictability and sharpen its absorbing ideas about images, both moving and still. The film also contains my favorite line from a movie this (admittedly still young) year: “I love to hate. It wakes me up.”
Antagonism and aggression also arouse in Thomas Cailley’s charming debut feature, Love at First Fight (yet another dopey English renaming; the straightforward original title, Les combattants—“The Fighters”—is conspicuously pun-free). Cailley’s film, one of eight “Rendez-Vous” titles with a US distributor, invigorates one of the most shopworn genres, the romantic comedy, largely through its unusual premise and its enormously appealing leads. Set during the summer in a coastal town in southwestern France, Love at First Fight follows the unlikely attraction that develops between Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), a mild-mannered woodworker and carpenter, and Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), an affectless, doomsday-obsessed graduate student preparing for an elite army unit. The two initially encounter each other at a self-defense demonstration on the beach, where Madeleine easily proves her physical superiority. Both embarrassed and intrigued by his opponent, the ginger-headed tradesman soon finds himself enrolling in the same intensive two-week boot camp that Madeleine is attending, in the hopes of figuring out his puzzling new acquaintance. Undeniably strong, the chemistry between Azaïs and Haenel occasionally confounds: Is it animal lust that draws their characters together or a sibling-like camaraderie (and concomitant enmity)? That the impulse behind this cathectic energy is never quite clear makes this mismatched couple all the more memorable.
Haenel, a twenty-six-year-old actress whom I’ve followed with great interest ever since seeing her in Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (2007), also stars in André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter, an overcooked, often ridiculous mid-1970s true-crime saga. Despite my better judgment, I was hooked, pulled in by the scenes with Haenel—whose intensity here recalls the ferocity of Isabelle Adjani in her best performances from the ’70s and ’80s—and Catherine Deneuve, her hair dyed a blinding, Hitchcock-blonde white, as Haenel’s casino-operating mother. To witness the lioness of French cinema (Deneuve superfans will be pleased to know that she appears in two other films in this year’s “Rendez-Vous” slate) and one of its ascendant young talents in the same frame is to be reminded of the nation’s greatest natural resource: actresses.
“Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 6–15, the IFC Center March 6–12, and BAMcinématek March 7–12. In the Name of My Daughter will be released on May 8; Love at First Fight will open in New York on May 22 with a national release to follow.
BLACK-AND-WHITE CINEMASCOPE is alluring precisely because it doesn’t add up: It’s penthouse and pavement, tuxedo and work boots. ’Scope, at least when it first appeared in 1953, had a lavish connotation; black-and-white was stark, austere, increasingly associated with film’s musty history rather than its bright, varicolored future. The introduction and promotion of the CinemaScope process, which involved the use of anamorphic lenses to shoot and project movies in a new widescreen format that was nearly twice as broad as the Academy ratio that had up until then been the standard, was in part a pushback against television, which had been making inroads with the movie audience. CinemaScope was a “Size Matters” means of reestablishing the encompassing, engrossing bigness of cinema. It was meant to be ravishing, and as such it was naturally to be paired with color photography, which spoke of budget and offered, again, something that television at the moment mostly could not.
BAMcinématek, in a two-part series, offers a chance to explore the particular contradiction that is black-and-white ’Scope. The first half consists of twenty-one American films—one imagines the second, international half will lean heavily on the Japanese industry, where the format was embraced, perhaps because its rectangular shape was familiar from classical screen painting, and where every studio soon had a ’Scope knock-off of their own (TohoScope, ToeiScope, Daeiscope, Nikkatsu Scope…).
Some filmmakers gave the new CinemaScope dimensions a chilly reception—see the old “snakes and funerals” crack by Fritz Lang in Godard’s Contempt (1963), since repeated ad infinitum—while others took to it straightaway. Among the latter was Otto Preminger, who’d always favored long-take sequence shots, a slower editing tempo, and distanced, proscenium compositions—all to which ’Scope was suited. Preminger first experimented with CinemaScope on the 1954 Western River of No Return, and used some variation of the widescreen format on the majority of his subsequent work. BAM has two Preminger films: Advise & Consent, his 1962 film of Beltway duplicity, whose vitrine-like compositions supplied the visual template for Netflix’s House of Cards, and Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), a London-set psychological thriller which contrasts decadent Anglos (including Noël Coward as a droll collector of BDSM paraphernalia) to Americans abroad whose fresh-faced innocence disguises a more sinister sickness. The latter is some kind of apotheosis of classical mise-en-scene, and gets off a nice broadside at the expense of television, limiting an appearance by The Zombies to a tiny pub TV. (Sadly, even the cinemas aren’t safe today—though a goodly portion of the series will be playing on 35 mm, Bunny Lake and five other films will be shown on DCP, a format favored for rep screenings only by infidels.)
Samuel Fuller was another early CinemaScope adopter, starting with the 1954 Richard Widmark submarine-adventure film Hell and High Water. (For whatever reason, with this and the same year’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there was an early association between ’Scope and submersibles.) BAMcinématek has Fuller’s Indochina War–set China Gate (1957), which anticipates the American adventure in Vietnam and, from later in the same year, Forty Guns, a Western starring Barbara Stanwyck as a pistol-packing cattle baron, which employs the full-widescreen eyeline shot which Sergio Leone would later make his trademark.
Otto Preminger, Advise & Consent, 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 139 minutes. Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray).
20th Century Fox, for whom Fuller made these ’Scope films, reserved the CinemaScope name for their A projects, while their B-budget widescreen movies were announced as having been shot in “RegalScope.” In fact, the processes were the same in all but a few minor points, though the idea was not to taint the CinemaScope brand through association with downmarket fare. This leads us to the emerging schism in the nature of black-and-white ’Scope productions: On one side, there were those films whose black-and-white photography was an indicator of poverty; on the other, there were those for whom black-and-white indicated class, prestige, and seriousness of purpose, as it did with black-and-white “art” photography. (Until the institutional legitimization of William Eggleston’s work by MoMA’s John Szarkowski in the early 1970s, practically no other kind was acknowledged.)
The prestige fare is better represented in BAMcinématek’s program, which is light on genre work—those of us who’ve been waiting in vain for a public screening of Hubert Cornfield’s The 3rd Voice (1960) will just have to keep hoping against hope. More typical of the program is The Three Faces of Eve (1957), a signature instance of what we would come to call “Oscar bait,” with Based on a True Story bona fides and an Academy Award–winning performance of disability. Not to say that the term should necessarily be a pejorative—David Lynch’s 1980 The Elephant Man, playing BAM, might also be painted with that brush, but it is sublime Oscar bait, and I defy anyone to hear John Hurt’s “I’m not used to being treated so well by a beautiful woman...” without feeling something tear loose within.
The Elephant Man is one of two films in the series that haven’t quite reached middle-age yet, along with Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan, shot by the great Gordon Willis, whose memorial series at the Museum of the Moving Image is presently winding down. (From the film’s luxuriant prologue: “…for him, this was still a town that existed in black-and-white…”) Willis is one of the legitimate star cinematographers of the program, along with Elephant Man’s Freddie Francis and James Wong Howe, whose career spanned from the Silents to the rise of verite handheld camerawork, at which he acquitted himself marvelously. Howe is represented here by Hud (1963) and The Outrage (1964), two of the films he shot for Martin Ritt, whose 1957 No Down Payment also screens, making “Black & White ’Scope” the closest thing that New York City has had in many moons to a showcase for this too-little-celebrated director. Billy Wilder, who was never so starved for attention, is represented by The Apartment (1960) and One, Two, Three (1961), a punishingly manic Cold War comedy with James Cagney as the dervish dynamo at its center. (Among Wilder’s black-and-white ’Scope films, I confess to a preference for one that’s even more caustic and unrelenting, Kiss Me, Stupid —not playing BAM, but newly released to Blu-ray by Olive Films.)
Elsewhere, we find various examples of the sorts of Quality Properties that were offered to the midcentury viewer in the years between the foundering of the studios and the rise of New Hollywood, so-called. There are two three-hour World War II epics (The Longest Day  and The Victors ), as well as adaptations from Capote (In Cold Blood ) and Melville (Billy Budd ). I’d trade the lot for Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1957), the one film in the series to be fervently recommended above all others. Technically a Faulkner adaptation, though based on the not-particularly-well-regarded-or-even-remembered Pylon of 1935, about an itinerant group of barnstorming pilots, it’s full of career-high performances from actors with whom Sirk had worked in the past—Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack, and particularly Rock Hudson, playing a mealy-mouthed and rather seedy journalist. If any American film fulfilled black-and-white ’Scope’s particular ability to be simultaneously posh and déclassé, it is this, in which high ideals and base desires are cheek-and-jowl.
“Black & White ’Scope: American Cinema” runs through March 19, 2015 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.
Julie Lopes-Curval, Le Beau Monde (High Society), 2014, color, sound, 95 minutes. Alice and Antoine (Ana Girardot and Bastien Bouillon).
ALICE (ANA GIRARDOT), a pretty twenty-year-old who is in her first year at the Paris fashion trades institute L’École Duperré, and Antoine (Bastien Bouillon), an attractive business major who is about to drop out of grad school to become a photographer, are leafing through a monograph on the artist Sheila Hicks, whose use of fabric and other craft materials expanded the definition of fine art. They pause at a photograph of a small, ragged, irregularly colored cloth. Why, wonders Alice, is it beautiful? Antoine answers that it reminds him of primitive art and that you can see a wound in the coloration. Alice counters that his answers don’t say anything about its beauty or why it’s art. “It could be a badly woven fabric.”
Julie Lopes-Curval’s Le Beau Monde (2014)or, as it has been inadequately retitled for the American market, High Societyis a coming-of-age romance that has its heroine negotiating a multivalent liminal space: between adolescence and adulthood, working class and upper class, fashion and high art, the provinces and Paris. I can’t think of another movie that articulates the conflicts in its young heroine’s life as intelligently, consistently, and subtly as this one does, while eschewing snark or exaggeration.
In the film’s first sequence we see Alice on a beach near Bayeux, her Normandy hometown. We might notice her sweater, brighter than the sea behind her but similar in its myriad shades of blue. The sweater also catches the eye of Agnès (Aurélia Petit), a fashion honcho who weekends nearby. Alice seizes the opportunity to ask Agnès to help with her application to the fashion institute and then thanks her by bringing her a scarf, which is similar to the sweater. But looking at her gift as she stands in the hallway of Agnès’s tastefully appointed country home, it suddenly seems to her crude and bulky. Through whose eyes was she looking when she unraveled thrift-store sweaters and reknitted the wool remnants into a wrap, and through whose eyes does she see her gift as Agnès smiles dismissively and says something about it being too warm for summer?
This question obsesses Alice as she moves from the crowded cottage where she grew up with a mom who fought for a decade to get the severance pay she was owed and a stepfather who runs a food stand in an outdoor market to the throwaway chic of the apartment in Paris that has been in Agnès’s family for generations and where Antoine, Agnès’s son, lives on-and-off. It is class difference that sparks the attraction between Alice and Antoine, and class difference and its attendant guilt will drive them apart. At school, Alice learns to put knitting books aside, to make embroideries that are personal to her even as they verge on abstraction and speak to the entire history of French handiwork. Did you know that the celebrated Bayeux Tapestry was not woven, as legend had it, by a queen waiting for her warrior husband, but rather by dozens of monks and servants? For Alice, the contradictions are endlessly troubling; they don’t, however, bother Antoine, who’s insulated by his privilege. When Antoine photographs Alice’s mom and then tells Alice how beautiful he finds working-class neighborhoods, she is outraged by what she perceives as his condescension and exploitation. She’s not wrong, the proof being that Antoine neglects to invite her mother to the opening of his one-man show, where her image is more vibrant than anything else on the walls. But the photo also suggests that Antoine had seen the life in Alice’s mother’s face more fully than Alice ever has.
Working with the delicately expressive cinematography of Céline Bozon and a screenplay that she cowrote with Sophie Hiet, Lopes-Curval has taken a familiar Bildungsroman structure and embroidered it with the behavior and dialogue of characters to whom she clearly has a personal connection. The embroidery makes the film new and exceptional. High Society will inevitably be compared to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013). Lacking that wildly overrated film’s exploitative depiction of women’s bodies and sexuality and its risible dialogue about art, feminism, and money, Lopes-Curval’s movie will not have an easy time in the US market. Currently lacking a North American distributor, its showcase screening in the prescient and eclectic “Film Comment Selects” series may be the only chance you have to see it on the big screen. Obviously, I think you should seize the opportunity. Girardot will be on hand for a postscreening Q&A.
High Society screens Saturday, February 28 at 6 PM at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the series “Film Comment Selects.”
Jafar Panahi, Taxi, 2015, video, color, sound, 82 minutes.
SADLY IT HAS BECOME A TRUISM that any feature film with LGBT content, no matter how bad, will be accepted at the Berlin International Film Festival, and most likely featured in the art-house-friendly Panorama section. This was the case again this year with entries like Sebastián Silva’s Nasty Baby, awarded the Teddy for Best Feature, a spiteful celebration of New York City gentrification whose petty and charmless characters become increasingly unlikeable as the film wears on. Put them together with the types depicted on the HBO series Looking and you have solid evidence for John Waters’s argument that “coming in”—completely dropping out of gay culture—is the only option available for anyone with one-quarter of a functioning brain.
Where Panorama gets it right, more often than not, is in its selection of documentaries. This year, portrayals of artistic genius—Jack Walsh’s Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, Brett Morgan’s Cobain: Montage of Heck, Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands, and Walter Salles’s Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang—were mostly riveting and particularly necessary in light of the failed efforts by two auteurs, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, in the Competition section.
Should pedophiles be allowed—or even encouraged—to socialize with the children they have fallen in love with? This is the question posed by Daniel’s World, one of the more courageous documentaries in Panorama. Veronika Lisková’s sensitive portrait focuses on a twenty-five-year-old grad student and writer in the Czech capital fighting to have his sexual preference recognized and respected as an orientation rather than a sickness. Accepted by his friends and family—and even the parents of the young boy he is in love with and who he is permitted to see once a month—Daniel avers his commitment to never having sex with a child or watching child pornography, while publishing novels, giving speeches, and marching in the Prague Pride parade as an out-and-proud pedophile. That Daniel’s World was made by and for Czech television shows how far behind the United States is from the rest of the civilized West in engaging in serious discussions on the nature of sexuality and the place of sexual minorities in society.
Another moving instance of portraiture was to be found in El Hombre Nuevo, winner of the Festival’s Teddy Award for Best Documentary. Stefania is a middle-aged trans woman living as a homeless prostitute on the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay. A devoted Sandinista, she left her home in Nicaragua when she was a young boy named Roberto and continued the fight alongside the Tupamaros. Today her biggest struggle is reconciliation with her past; the film follows her journey back to Nicaragua to reconnect with her impoverished, religious family, from whom she has been estranged. Despite the harsh circumstances, Stefania retains an enduring empathetic outlook toward both strangers and loved ones; the film’s subtle investigation of ideology, with its titular evocation of the Soviet “new man,” is rooted in a rare life lived according to the dictates of truth and personal dignity.
The competition’s most prestigious prize, the Golden Bear, went to a film whose maker could not be present to accept the award. The Iranian government has banned Jafar Panahi from traveling abroad and making films, and with Taxi, Panahi transforms these limitations into an artistic triumph. With a camera placed on the dashboard of a borrowed taxi, the director, playing himself, drives around Tehran picking up strangers and friends, evincing an insider’s view of everyday life in the Iranian capital. The film charts Panahi’s attempt to attain a clear moral position in the face of the systematic injustices that he observes and personally experiences as an artist whose freedom has been taken away. Other films began to seem trite by comparison, and indeed, navigating the Berlinale’s daunting program of hundreds of films, one wishes for more rigorous standards of programming. Less can mean so much more.
The sixty-fifth Berlin International Film Festival ran February 5–15.