IN OUR ERA OF HASHTAG FEMINISM, few chronicles of the movement’s second wave remain as bracing as the restless documentary Town Bloody Hall by direct-cinema stalwarts D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. A record of the “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” held on April 30, 1971, in Manhattan’s Town Hall, a venerable performance venue on West Forty-Third Street, the event was sponsored by the Theatre for Ideas, which New York magazine hailed in 1969 as “the forum for [the city’s] intellectual elite.” Occasioning this colloquy was the appearance, in the March 1971 issue of Harper’s, of Norman Mailer’s incendiary essay “The Prisoner of Sex,” his reply to the drubbing he got by Kate Millett in her landmark feminist treatise Sexual Politics (1970).
Mailer, in suit jacket and striped tie, moderates the symposium, alternately provoking further outrage from, flirting with, or railing against the four panelists (and/or the audience), who speak in alphabetical order: Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of NOW; Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch (1970); Jill Johnston, cultural critic for the Village Voice; and Diana Trilling, literary-critic doyenne. (Conspicuous by her absence, Millett is mentioned throughout the evening. The same year that Town Bloody Hall was shot, Millett released her own documentary Three Lives, a triptych of autobiographical accounts by women.) True to the name of the event’s promoting institution, the conversation demonstrates both theater and ideas, with the former more in evidence, whether onstage or among the literati-glutted attendees. Preemptively declaring that NOW “is considered the square organization of women’s liberation,” Ceballos delivers a vanilla speech that is significantly enlivened when spectator Gregory Corso storms out, yelling, “All of humanity! Not just half of humanity!”
Discord also erupts among the panelists. Matronly Trilling upbraids Greer, who had earlier swaggered to the rostrum resplendent in boa and feminist-fist pendant, for her misreading of Freud in The Female Eunuch. The Australian writer—whose exasperated utterance supplies the film with its title, and who appeared a week after this symposium on the cover of Life, which called her the “saucy feminist that even men like”—tartly halts the rebuke with this declaration: “One of the characteristics of oppressed people is that they fight among themselves.”
Or sometimes love: The highlight of Town Bloody Hall—and a defining moment of sapphic sabotage—occurs when Johnston, whose free-associative manifesto begins, “All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it yet,” is joined onstage by two ardent female admirers, this threesome soon collapsing onto the platform in a tangle of groping limbs. The spontaneous same-sex make-out session also prompts Mailer’s best line of the night: “Hey, you know, it’s great you paid twenty-five bucks to see three dirty overalls on the floor when you could see lots of cock and cunt for four dollars just down the street.” Simultaneously twitchy, abusive, arrogant, and self-deprecating, the moderator constantly bears out this tart description found in a 1961 essay by James Baldwin, relaying what the black musicians worshiped by Mailer said of him: “They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” Yet this turbulence isn’t limited to just the hectoring, curly-headed MC; the entire debate at Town Hall is defined by a manic, stimulating energy—the kind that’s hard to replicate via Twitter wars.
Town Bloody Hall screens on Saturday, June 21, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “Flaherty at MoMA: Turning the Inside Out.”
BASED SOLELY on its intro and outro, the sixth edition of BAMcinemaFest, New York City’s signature summertime film event, could easily be declared the best yet. Though vastly different, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which opens the festival, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which closes it, are the perfect bookends, each movie, whether deliberately or not, a profound reflection on the meaning of time. Linklater’s remarkable fiction project (eloquently assessed by Amy Taubin in the current issue of Artforum) was made over the course of twelve years, following the development of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who was six years old when shooting began in 2002, from first grader to incoming college first-year at UT Austin. Witnessing Coltrane and his character transform from tyke to budding man in less than three hours is a singularly moving experience; I can only hope that Linklater and his lead actor return to this compressed longitudinal-study format for a second installment, in which we trace Mason’s growth from voting age to thirty.
Twenty-five years have passed since Lee’s film, shot almost entirely on location on one block in Bed-Stuy and spanning roughly twenty-four hours, opened in the US. Celebrating the silver jubilee of this effulgent, electrifying movie, one of the most essential ever made about New York, inevitably invites reflecting on how much the city, especially Brooklyn, has changed from the final year of Ed Koch’s mayoralty to the first of Bill de Blasio’s. (Not to mention the arc of the writer/director/star/producer’s career: The commemorative screening of Do the Right Thing on June 29 both concludes the festival and kicks off BAMcinématek’s Lee retrospective, which runs until July 10.)
In between these superlative films are twenty-some feature-length works, two featurettes—including another excellent rep offering, Manfred Kirchheimer’s little-seen Stations of the Elevated (1981), a hypnotic chronicle of graffiti-festooned subway exteriors and other signs and symbols specific to late-1970s Gotham—and a handful of shorts, most made by emerging directors in American independent cinema. It would be scandalously unfair to expect the efforts of neophyte filmmakers to even begin to approach the monumentality of Linklater’s or Lee’s (or even Kirchheimer’s) projects, though I don’t think it’s too outlandish to ask that a movie endure in the memory longer than the fifteen minutes it takes to walk from BAM to my apartment.
Many titles in BAMcinemaFest did not withstand this low-bar test of time, but several others did. Of the comedies on view, none offered as much consistently inspired silliness as Madeleine Olnek’s The Foxy Merkins. Olnek’s second feature, much like its predecessor, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011), is a lo-fi divertissement that proves to be more than just a jokey title. Both also feature Lisa Haas, whose bulk and sartorial choices suggest Andrea Dworkin—making it all the more pleasingly incongruous that her Merkins character, Margaret, should be a dyke hooker, advised to solicit clients outside Talbots by her friend in the sapphic skin trade, Jo (Jackie Monahan, another Space Alien vet who shares Merkins co-writing credit with Olnek and Haas). Merkins sends up both male-hustler movies (Midnight Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho in particular) and the upscale, conservative daughters of Gomorrah with unerring goofiness.
Shot on Super 16, Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s For the Plasma has the distinction of being the festival’s lone world premiere and its most beguiling, unclassifiable entry. Quarter-lifer Helen (Rosalie Lowe) summons her friend—if that’s the right word—Charlie (Annabelle Lemieux) to assist her with some mysterious research involving data provided by CCTV cameras in the woods of an arcadian small fishing village in Maine. “How long have you been doing this?” the newcomer asks the pro, who responds, “A week or a year—makes no difference.” The reply typifies the seductive strangeness and arbitrariness of the plot: Most of Helen and Charlie’s conversations are delivered with zero affect until a raging blowup between the two occurs late one night, never to be acknowledged afterward. For the Plasma is a modest project of big ideas: about solitude, collaboration, conspiracy, magical thinking.
Another filmmaking duo, Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, also tracks big-brained twenty-somethings in idyllic spots—this time, around the globe—in their delightful L for Leisure. Set during 1992 and ’93 and beautifully shot on 16 mm, this achronological account of a group of graduate students during school-year downtime was clearly made under the sign of Whit Stillman and Éric Rohmer, but the film wears its influences lightly. Similarly, the period details—the Capri Sun pouches, the absurd height of all waistbands for both male and female attire, the flyers for the campus “AIDS dance”—are exact without ever becoming fussy, all the more impressive when considering that this ludic time capsule was made by directors who were only ten and eleven during the years depicted. Like Boyhood and Do the Right Thing, L for Leisure invites us to look back while pointing the way ahead.
The sixth annual BAMcinemaFest runs June 18 through 29 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
Lav Diaz, Century of Birthing, 2011, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 360 minutes.
NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (2013) tells a Filipino tale. The film begins on the northern Philippine island of Luzon with a disillusioned former law student, Fabian Viduya (Sid Lucero), espousing to friends his “new morality,” according to which a society rebuilds itself by extinguishing its undesirables. For Fabian, these dregs include a local usurer and her daughter, both of whom he soon stabs to death. Joaquin (Archie Alemania), an impoverished DVD salesman, is framed and imprisoned for the crime, leaving his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and sister-in-law Ading (Hazel Orencio) behind to raise their children without him. In time, Fabian comes to watch this broken family from a distance and consider whether and how he can—or should—help them.
The moral conflict propelling the remainder of Norte (reviewed by James Quandt for Artforum’s April 2014 issue) keeps with the career-long approach of its maker, Lav Diaz, whose films flow from life experience. His own parents were rural people not unlike Joaquin and Eliza. Fabian’s character loosely overlaps with that of the real-life dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who terrorized the Philippines during a sixteen-year period of martial law (1971–1987), through which the fifty-five-year-old Diaz and his family lived.
Norte, which was shot in the area where Marcos grew up, will be opening for a weeklong run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on June 20. Diaz’s official twelfth feature is his first to receive US commercial distribution, thanks to the Cinema Guild. Fewer than half his works have screened publicly in New York, a delinquency that Lincoln Center will address with Norte’s accompanying retrospective, “Time Regained: The Films of Lav Diaz.” The seven-film series has been scheduled with large gaps between screenings, highlighting the importance that Diaz’s films place on the interplay between immersion and breathing space: Following the June 22 showing of his mysterious, delicate epic Melancholia (2008), the films will appear through February 2015 at a rate of no more than one per month.
Lav Diaz, Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 540 minutes.
Norte is Diaz’s most popular film to date, an honor assured since its world premiere in Cannes last year. More so than any of his prior great works, it embraces a vocabulary of conventional narrative filmmaking, with Diaz and mainstream cinematographer Larry Manda creating rich CinemaScope frames full of tracking shots across colorful, glistening sunlit fields. However, as Diaz has said, “Color is deceptive.” The gorgeous land his film depicts produced his nation’s greatest monster.
Diaz has produced his films independently since frustrations with his country’s studio system helped him to go his own way in the early 2000s. He invariably begins shaping them around their chief locations, all Philippine save for the Jersey City nest of Filipino immigrants in 2001’s Batang West Side (screening October 19). Norte’s sleek look differs from his typical approach, in which he photographs the sites himself at a distance in black-and-white with a small, handheld digital camera. His strong and often beautiful aesthetic choices help to mark the action as allegorical, with the landscapes reflecting human psychology.
A frequent Diaz shot consists of a person or small group crossing a stretch of road in its entirety, emphasizing the labor involved in the characters’ journey. For instance, Melancholia’s three leads wander disguised through the barren streets of the small Philippine town of Sagada, motivated by the hope that the area’s endless rain will wash away their memories of dead loved ones. Their journey evokes another taken by a trio of childhood friends through their typhoon-ruined hometown in 2007’s Death in the Land of Encantos (screening August 24). In both films, the characters roam in search of ways to find peace with themselves.
Diaz is less interested in misery than in survival, a theme that his work best registers over time. Many of his films are long by traditional standards—Norte runs just over four hours, and each film in the retrospective comes in between five and eleven. He has also made stunning works ranging from eight minutes in length to eighty, and stages similarly universal stories across the films regardless of their scale. Diaz places his central figures in difficult circumstances to reveal their creativity and strength, while mobilizing haunted witnesses around them who serve both as foils to the action and as his own, self-critical mouthpieces. Perhaps none is more overt than the filmmaker Homer (Perry Dizon) in 2011’s Century of Birthing (screening September 21), who yearns to make art that can speak for his people.
Yet, as with Dostoyevsky—a writer whose work has been formative for Diaz—all the films’ characters give voice to their maker’s concerns. The weary police detective longing for the Philippines during his American self-exile in Batang West Side; the scarred young woman committed to preserving her life story for her daughter’s sake in 2012’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (screening November 30); and the nomad seeking a purpose in 2006’s Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (screening December 21) are just three examples of figures embodying struggles that Diaz has felt, believes that others feel, and hopes to share. They are—as Gilles Deleuze once described Dostoyevsky’s people—“engaged in impossible situations” that form the facts of life.
And regarding the series’ closing film, 2005’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (screening January 24 and 25, 2015), I will say only this: It’s worth the wait.
IN THE FIRST FEW MINUTES of Martin Provost’s stimulating biopic Violette, authorities, sometime during the winter of 1942 in northern France, open a suitcase to discover its interior stuffed with bloody contraband sausages. The owner of that valise, Violette Leduc, played with feral intensity by Emmanuelle Devos, would spend a few more years as a black marketeer of foie gras, beef cheeks, and other delicacies in war-depredated Paris before devoting herself exclusively to writing. In this career, which spanned the publication of her first book, L’Asphyxie, in 1946, until her death, in 1972, at age of sixty-five, Leduc was also a meat-handler of sorts, composing visceral sentences that became the hallmark of her largely autobiographical oeuvre: “The squid in my guts shuddered.”
That line is heard, in voice-over, roughly two-thirds into Provost’s film as Leduc, on a solo camping expedition in Provence, begins writing about her boarding-school lesbian romance, adolescent memories she summons by putting her hand down her pants. (Expurgated from the book she was working on at the time, 1955’s Ravages, these erotic recollections weren’t published until 1966 as Thérèse et Isabelle, which soft-core maestro Radley Metzger made into a film two years later.) The great accomplishment of Violette is its sober presentation of Leduc’s frequently intractable nature, unruliness that the film honors without sentimentalizing or solemnizing it.
Provost, who cowrote Violette with two others, earlier proved his talent for depicting lesser-known, ungovernable women artists on-screen with Séraphine (2008), a thoughtful rendering of the life of naive painter Séraphine Louis, committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1932. Undone by the excisions that her publisher, Gallimard, demands from Ravages, Leduc will also be confined to a mental asylum, an episode illustrated economically: The author’s acute anguish is unmistakable, though the extremity of her treatment, including electroshock, is wisely never shown, only remarked upon by another character.
Yet before and after this hospitalization, Leduc is often upset, acting rashly, railing against the world—an agitated state that she seems to have been born into, indelibly seared by her status as the daughter of an unmarried domestic worker. The wound Leduc carried from her “illegitimacy” throbbed in most of her writing, never more profoundly than in her 1964 memoir, La Bâtarde, her best-known work (Provost’s movie ends at the time of its publication). “I’m a bastard! That’s the problem! And nobody wants me!” she howls to her mother (Catherine Hiegel). At once floridly self-abasing and relentlessly driven, Leduc constantly remarks on her ugliness and has a particular talent for bad object choices, falling in love with gay men and, crucially, Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain, fearlessly transforming the icon into a living, breathing, if still formidable, mortal), who does not reciprocate. Instead, the revered existentialist encourages, financially supports, and champions this irrepressible newcomer. Beauvoir issues a series of blunt directives—“Put your obsessions in writing, and the solutions will appear,” “Screaming and crying won’t help. Writing will”—to her protégée. However inconstant she is when not putting fountain pen to cahier, Leduc does exactly that, returning again and again to her cursed origin story. Provost, even while hewing closely to the conventions of an often hidebound genre, intelligently salutes all aspects of a writer determined to parse this declaration: “I am flesh and blood. I am alive.”
Violette opens in New York on Friday, June 13; a national release will follow.
Tsai Ming-liang, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2004, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.
TSAI MING-LIANG’S Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2004) takes place at the Fu-Ho Grand, a leaky, waterlogged Taipei movie palace on the night of its last-ever screening, which happens to be King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967) a landmark in the genre called wuxia pian. (Fantasy-tinged martial arts movies, usually based on traditional stories.) Save for some scratchy shots from the film’s prologue and credits, you see nothing of Dragon Inn in Tsai’s film, though its soundtrack is a constant presence—the intensifying clack of a kuaiban before a charge; the rustling of silk garments which accompanies combatants taking flight; the glossy ring of slapping swords. If Goodbye, as Tsai has often said, bids farewell to a certain kind of communal cinematic experience, then King Hu’s cinema represents for him the quintessence of what that experience could offer. He’s not alone.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn plays as part of BAMcinématek’s twelve-day, fifteen-film series “All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu,” along with nine films directed by Hu between 1966 and 1993, and a selection of films by other directors that he was influenced by (Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai) or influenced himself (Tsui Hark’s 1995 The Blade). Tsai and Hu would seem on the surface to be strange bedfellows. Tsai’s cinema has been moving—or rather not moving—in an ever more static, meditative direction for years. The camera is virtually still in Goodbye, and his latest, Journey to the West, is a series of tableaux in which star Lee Kang-sheng, in a Buddhist monk’s robe, inches his way across the city of Marseilles for fifty-six minutes. Hu by contrast is a dynamo, remembered for jump-starting the wuxia, imbuing it with a new, barreling kineticism.
Born Jinquan Hu in Beijing, 1932, this distinctly pre-Revolutionary aesthete developed a love for Peking Opera, and honed his talent with pen and brush—his mother was a traditional painter—at the American Methodist–run Beijing Academy. During the Chinese Civil War, Hu went to Hong Kong, and was stranded there after the Communist victory in 1949. Plying his talents as a poster designer, Hu attracted the attention of Great Wall Film Company, who hired him as a set dresser, though he would spend most of his apprenticeship period at the Yonghua studio as an actor, and it was in this capacity that he was hired by the Shaw Brothers, with an option of becoming a director. Hu trained under Li Han Hsiang, a specialist in huangmei diao, films made in a traditional operetta form popular in the Chinese provinces. BAM is playing Li’s The Love Eterne (1963), a film on which Hu was credited as co-director, whose enormous success launched him into directing under the auspices of producer Run Run Shaw, who died in Hong Kong this January at age 106.
Come Drink with Me (1966) was Hu’s second credit as a solo director, his first crack at the wuxia genre, and the beginning of a legendary run of filmmaking. The opening, an ambush on a palanquin and its guards crossing a harsh, hilly landscape by a band of brigands, was athletic, visceral, and gory in a way that audiences hadn’t seen before, and they responded with mad enthusiasm. The Shaw Bros. wuxia had previously been studio-bound and candy-colored, nearer to the huangmei diao than this film, dirt-seamed and perfectionist in its period detail. It’s no exaggeration to say that Come Drink with Me was to the wuxia what The Wild Bunch (1969) was to the Western.
After the success of Come Drink with Me, Hu left Hong Kong for Taiwan, where he would be based until moving to California in 1984—though Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountains, both released 1979, were shot back-to-back over fifteen months in South Korea. The 1980s were hard on Hu—the only work from this period in the series is the Tang Dynasty–set All the King’s Men (1983)—but in the early ’90s, never ceasing to dream of new movies, he briefly returned to Hong Kong to mount a comeback. Chinese Ghost Story cash-in Painted Skin (1993), Hu’s first film shot in mainland China, was also his last film. He died in 1997, while preparing an American project about the building of the transcontinental railroad, which was to have been produced by John Woo.
It’s a great loss that we will never see the American West as Hu would have shot it. His compositional genius is evident in every aspect of his work, but never so indisputable as when he’s dealing with landscape. Hu is responsible for some of the most ravishing establishing shots in cinema, and even his most frenetic films are distinguished by lyrical breaks, including several opening Overtures that feature travelers en route to a destination, dwarfed by the terrain they are crossing.
King Hu, A Touch of Zen, 1971, 35 mm, color, sound, 200 minutes.
Come Drink with Me established the template for a typical Hu story. A group of strangers gather together at an out-of-the-way locale, each with their own hidden motives for being there, connected by secret allegiances. While it’s impossible to say too much about Hu’s filming of action, equal attention is due to the facility with which, through camera movement, division of the frame into compartments of action, and composition in depth, he keeps the various moving parts of his story before a viewer, seemingly effortlessly. In Raining in the Mountain, the setting is a mountaintop temple in the midst of a succession controversy. In Come Drink, Dragon Inn, and The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), which form a rough trilogy, it’s a roadside inn. BAM’s program includes Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), which features the prototype of the Hu inn in the cavernous, Frank Lloyd Wright–esque gambling saloon where much of the film lays its scene. (Hu also has Ray’s knack, seen in later films, of dynamically mapping architecture with the widescreen frame—see in particular the opening of Raining in the Mountain.) Johnny Guitar is also a relevant pairing because the saloon is run by Joan Crawford’s hard-nosed Vienna, a woman more brassy and assertive than the movie’s eponymous male lead. HK cinema of the period was rife with cross-dressing women filling male roles—see Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po in The Love Eterne—while Hu’s cinema is filled with honest-to-God warrior-women, including Dragon Inn swordswoman Polly Shangguang Lingfeng; Hsu Feng in Hu’s three-hour, Cannes-honored opus A Touch of Zen (1971); the sextet of fighting femmes, including a young Angela Mao, in The Fate of Lee Khan; and the prototype of them all, Cheng Pei-pei’s drag king Golden Swallow in Come Drink with Me. (Ang Lee would later cast Cheng in his extended citation of Hu’s cinema, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which also plays BAM.)
Now let’s talk about the fights. Hu’s contribution to wuxia was highlighting the actual physical skills of his performers, minimizing the magical superpowers on which the genre had then recently been reliant. (You might say Hu was a revolutionary traditionalist long before the current CGI vs. Analog effects debate.) With the aid of Peking opera–trained fight coordinators, including Han Ying-Chieh and, on The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones, an uncredited Sammo Hung, Hu charted intricate choreographies which play out just at the edge of the mind’s ability to comprehend. Often a single scrolling take will contain a swinging-for-the-fences hack-and-parry, an aerial kick and somersault, an opening flurry and a closing retreat, all in a matter of seconds. These acrobatics are extraordinary feats in their own right but, lest we forget, in every single one of these fights there is an additional unseen participant who is in fact incredibly cumbersome and obtrusive, but has been made to seem impossibly light as a feather: the camera and its operator. Seen as they are meant to be seen—save Raining on the Mountain, BAM’s entire series is in 35 mm—Hu’s set pieces provide an endorphin dump that can only be rivaled by the élan of Hollywood’s best musical numbers. And music is also a key element of Hu’s total cinema, blending traditional Chinese opera and Western influences, both low (spaghetti Western) and high (I swear I heard a snatch of Debussy’s “La cathédrale engloutie” in Dragon Inn.)
Hu emphasized his performers’ real prowess, but that doesn’t mean that he bore a strict allegiance to the physical facts of the world. He bent time and space as it suited him, loved extending the hangtime of a leap into flight by suturing together a string of shots of bodies in midair, cutting from a close-up blow to a wide view in which the struck party lands an impossible distance away—all pre wire fu!—as well as whipcrack cuts that hurtle between the issuance of an order to its carrying out. Hu was an exceedingly playful director, his films full of games of skill, as well as tricks, stratagems, and tactics: see the series of contests that’s a highlight of The Valiant Ones or, in the same film, the battle plan laid out on a Go board.
Synthesizing disparate innovations from pan-Asian action filmmaking—hence the presence of Japanese chanbara Seven Samurai in BAM’s series—Hu created the new gold standard. It is safe to say that subsequent wuxia, or martial arts films generally, would not look or move quite like they do without him. What has largely been discarded, however, is the pedagogic intent in Hu’s entertainments. He was an adherent to Chan Buddhism and, beginning with Come Drink with Me, increasing with A Touch of Zen, and peaking with the Mountain films, his faith was an important part of his narratives. In this respect, the ascetic Tsai Ming-liang is as much an inheritor to Hu’s tradition as the flamboyant Tsui Hark, with one pursuing his spiritual seriousness and the other his physical buoyancy.
This infectious buoyancy is important to note, for even appreciative views of Hu from the West have tended to exaggerate the degree to which lack of familiarity with Chinese religion and folklore will hinder narrative comprehension and enjoyment of Hu’s films. (The answers are “Very little” and “Not at all.”) When it comes to basking in the golden reign of King Hu, the only prerequisite that I can see is that one must have a pulse.
Jean-Luc Godard, Goodbye to Language, 2014, color converted to 3-D, color, sound, 70 minutes.
FORTY-SIX YEARS after he and his comrades stormed the stage at the Cannes Film Festival to shut down the event in solidarity with the workers and students on the barricades, Jean-Luc Godard, now eighty-three, proved that he still has what it takes to stop this circus in its tracks. For those who came here for the films—as opposed to the conspicuous consumption and permanent hangover of this Hollywood-meets-Eurotrash spring break, with its socialite yacht parties, billionaire charity auctions, and luxury-brand pageantry—the single official screening of Godard’s 3-D opus, Goodbye to Language, was easily this year’s defining event. Lines started forming nearly two hours before the film (which runs all of seventy minutes) and the lights in the Grand Théâtre Lumiere went down to a spontaneous yell of “Godard forever!” and rowdy cheers. Less a culmination of the polyphonic mode that is Late Godard than an acceleration, the film is a furiously associative meditation on humanity and history, cinematic and linguistic meaning, the world of nature and the nature of reality—all refracted through fragmentary episodes involving an adulterous couple and dog’s-eye-view roamings through a light-streaked forest. The stereoscopic tricks and compositions are at minimum witty; at their most startling, they renew the reality of the screen image. It’s a bravura display of what a master formalist can do with a technology that cinema, now more than ever, equates simply with spectacle.
If the world premiere of Goodbye to Language was the most thrilling experience of the 2014 festival, the most depressing one followed immediately after, as this literally multidimensional work—with its dense superimpositions of image and sound, its dizzying oscillations between dyspeptic mischief and elegiac serenity—fell into the maw of instant reaction. The signal-to-noise ratio at Cannes worsens every year—audiences tweet in their seats during end credits, TV crews wait in ambush outside press screenings, critics race to crank out their notices in less time than it took to watch a movie—and it hit rock bottom after Goodbye to Language. The first trade review to land included the mind-boggling line “Since winning his honorary Oscar, Godard is obviously on cruise control.” Goodbye to language, goodbye to thought.
The festival’s other signal moment of cognitive dissonance also involved Godard. At the closing ceremony, the jury, chaired by Jane Campion, awarded the third-place Prix du Jury jointly to Godard, the oldest filmmaker in competition, and to the prolific Quebecois director Xavier Dolan, the youngest, at twenty-five, for his fifth feature, Mommy. Dolan’s champions typically regard his youth as a fetish or an excuse, and their ranks are likely to grow with this apparently crowd-pleasing mother-son melodrama, sodden with maudlin theatrics and shot in a perfect-square, Instagram-ready aspect ratio (for no discernible reason other than for the frame to stretch into widescreen at upbeat moments). Campion’s jury made a point of spreading the wealth across generations. To almost no one’s surprise, the Palme d’Or went to Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a respected auteur who has come close to the top prize numerous times, for Winter Sleep, a superbly acted, improbably absorbing three-hour-plus moral tale revolving around an aging actor-turned–landlord and hotelier in remote, rocky Cappadocia. A film with overt high-toned borrowings (Chekhov, Bergman) in which the characters, divided along volatile fault lines of class and gender, reveal themselves in long, winding conversations and the occasional indelible gesture, it was the frontrunner before it screened, and was even more of a sure thing after. The Wonders, the second feature by thirty-three-year-old Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, was perhaps a less expected choice for the runner-up Grand Prix—though many snarked that a woman-led jury was bound to reward a woman director. (Rohrwacher was one of two in competition, along with Naomi Kawase.)
Rohrwacher’s film, about an unconventional family of beekeepers in rural Umbria, Italy, is a coming-of-age story that benefits greatly from its dreamlike specificity of texture and mood and from the quiet ambiguity that it cultivates around the motives and histories of the characters. Some observers sniped that it was “too small” for the competition—a complaint that speaks volumes about what its attendees have come to expect from Cannes. It’s not just the organizers who run the official selection as a club, granting automatic entry to the same pantheon auteurs year-in year-out; critical tastes have also adapted to establish a fairly narrow view of what makes a movie worthy of the Cannes spotlight. Official support coalesces more easily around the heavyweight ambition of Winter Sleep or the unmissable symbolism and topicality of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (the Best Screenplay winner), which both bashes Putin and updates the Book of Job, than, say, the sly pleasures of Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent and Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria—for my money, the two most exciting films in the competition after Goodbye to Language.
Saint Laurent and Sils Maria divided the critics and were ignored at the awards. Both were easy to dismiss as pop-culture trifles: Cannes may feed on fashion and celebrity, but on screen, the preference is for the self-serious. In a lineup with an abundance of biopics and true-life stories, Saint Laurent was the one that toyed most productively with the genre’s rules and limitations, besides also featuring some of the most electrifying filmmaking of the festival. Focusing on a dark, hedonistic, wildly creative decade in Yves Saint Laurent’s life and career, Bonello considers the couturier (convincingly embodied by Gaspard Ulliel and later by Visconti stalwart Helmut Berger) as a myth, a brand, an avatar of his era. As much as his subject and the gravitational pull he exerts in the hothouse environments of atelier and nightclub, Bonello is interested—as in his previous film, L’apollonide—in cinema’s potential both to capture and to warp the passage of time and our perception of it (especially apt given Saint Laurent’s lifelong identification with Proust: The film opens with him checking into a hotel under the pseudonym M. Swann). Sils Maria pairs Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart as a French movie star and her American assistant in a hall-of-mirrors meta-fiction, with Binoche preparing for the unwelcome role of the older woman in a revival of a play in which she was once the ingenue. The film echoes any number of thespian melodramas, including All About Eve, Persona, Opening Night, and André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (co-written by Assayas and starring Binoche), and yet emerges as its own, restlessly intelligent, up-to-the-moment reflection on the treacherous uncanny valley between acting and being.
Overall the grumblings about the selection were louder than usual, perhaps because the lovely weather left people with nothing to complain about after two rainy years. But at least in the number of good-to-great films, Cannes 2014 seemed to me one of the stronger editions in some time. Its stature ensures that Cannes always has the pick of the crop; the problem, and the mystery, is where the most venturesome films will end up. The refusal to put documentaries center stage means that a work as significant as Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, which replays the recent Ukrainian uprising from festive protests to deadly clashes entirely through long master shots of massing, milling crowds, had to make do with an out-of-competition slot. Sidelined by its length, Bruno Dumont’s four-part, made-for-TV P’tit Quinquin was given a special screening in the Directors’ Fortnight section. An update of Dumont’s L’humanité that prompted inevitable comparisons to Twin Peaks and True Detective, this absurdist metaphysical murder mystery—which begins with the discovery of human body parts stuffed inside a cow—is also a brilliant recasting of this singular director’s moral and theological obsessions in a tender, tragicomic register. And for all the gripes that Cannes doesn’t leave room for discovery, there was at least one film by a young director who counts as a major new voice: The Kindergarten Teacher by Nadav Lapid (Policeman), a wonderfully strange and unpredictable tale of a Tel Aviv preschool instructor’s ambiguous obsession with a poetry-writing five-year-old—although as an out-of-competition entry in Critics’ Week, it didn’t get anywhere near the audience it deserved.
Un Certain Regard, the secondary competition, is the nominal home for more challenging work, but the lineup remains frustratingly unfocused, even arbitrary. You find yourself wondering why some of these films are even in the festival and why some are not in the main competition. Squarely in the latter category, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure—the gifted Swedish filmmaker’s follow-up to Play—is a scalpel-sharp, often squirmingly funny dissection of the flimsy bonds of coupledom and in particular of the fragile male psyche: It begins with a vacationing family’s close encounter with an avalanche and evolves into a full-blown relationship disaster movie. Another unambiguous high point, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, winner of the Fipresci critics’ prize, is the Argentine director’s first film since Liverpool in 2008. This is also Alonso’s first period piece, his first film with professional actors, his first screenplay with a co-writer (the poet Fabian Casas), but as in all his work, the emphasis is on bodies in landscapes. This time the body belongs to Viggo Mortensen, outfitted in a Technicolor-bright nineteenth-century cavalry uniform; the landscapes are a vivid variety of Patagonian shrub, rock, grass, and desert, which the hero traverses on horseback and on foot, in search of a teenage daughter who has eloped with a new love, into the face of certain danger. The sensory attentiveness and sheer physicality of Alonso’s cinema reaches new heights here—one might even say it pushes up against the limits of time and space in the film’s thrilling coda. Alonso, not yet forty, is at the opposite end of his career from Godard, but Jauja was a revelation on par with Goodbye to Language: a work of tremendous beauty and a source of continual surprise, affirming the powers of the medium while expanding, in more ways than one, into new dimensions.
The sixty-seventh Cannes Film Festival ran from May 14th–25th, 2014.