Éric Rohmer, The Marquise of O..., 1976,* 35 mm, color, sound, 103 minutes.
ÉRIC ROHMER’S last completed feature, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in fall of 2007, when its director was eighty-seven years old, slightly less than three years before his death. The basis of the film was L’Astrée, a seventeenth-century pastoral novel by Honoré d’Urfé that concerns a protracted misunderstanding between Céladon, a shepherd of high birth, and Astrée, the woman who he loves, in spite of a feud between their families. The couple are torn asunder by Astrée’s jealous suspicions, and Céladon, played in Rohmer’s film by Andy Gillet, finds himself sought after by a smitten nymph, whose advances he must deflect out of respect for his lost love. Typical of Rohmer’s films, the drama is in the discourse, an ethical tug-of-war.
“Only fools are swayed by notions of loyalty,” she tells him.
“Is any act more shameful, more fickle, than to flit like a bee from flower to flower?” he replies.
Rohmer may be accused of many things, but fickleness isn’t one. The running conversation which is central to Astrea and Celadon—the value of a life of fidelity versus that of flitting from flower to flower, represented most memorably by Rodolphe Pauly’s horndog minstrel Hylas—is evident in his filmography as early as his 1963 short The Bakery Girl of Monceau, in which a young man (Barbet Schroeder) is briefly distracted by a flirtation with the eponymous bakery girl before finally returning to the original object of his affections, a stranger on the street who’d caught his eye. (Narrating from a future in which he and the first woman have wed, our protagonist finally, definitively dismisses this interlude as an “aberration.”)
Along with Claude Chabrol, a fellow critic-turned-filmmaker of the Cahiers du cinema class with whom Rohmer co-authored an early study of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Rohmer was the New Waver who most epitomized the figure of the auteur as a monomaniacal obsessive-compulsive, forever rearranging the same themes to fit into new patterns. While Chabrol set about reconfiguring his various Hélène/Paul/Charles threesomes, Rohmer went so far as to formalize his themed “periods,” his filmography largely being defined by three cycles: The Tales of the Four Seasons (four films, 1990–98), Comedies and Proverbs (six films, 1981–87), and the Six Moral Tales (1963–1972), of which The Bakery Girl was the first installment. In the interstices between movies belonging to these series, Rohmer made various unaffiliated one-offs—one of them, Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, had a weeklong stand in 2010 at BAMcinématek, who last year screened the Four Seasons. Now BAM has grouped a particular subset of unattached films in a weeklong, five-film retro devoted to “Period Rohmer.”
“Period Rohmer” highlights two distinct acts in the director’s career. The first comes after the completion of the Moral Tales and consists of two films, The Marquise of O… (1976) and Perceval (1978). Starring Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz, Marquise is based on a 1808 novel by the German Romantic Heinrich von Kleist, who was the subject of Austrian Jessica Hausner’s excellent, Rohmer-indebted 2014 Amour fou. (Rohmer, who preserved von Kleist’s archaic German in his film’s dialogue, later adapted his work for the stage; the results, 1980’s Catherine de Heilbronn, were broadcast on French television, though are not included in BAM’s program.) Perceval draws on Arthurian lore, in particular Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century Perceval, the Story of the Grail. In both, Rohmer is approaching in unfamiliar trappings familiar thematic territory, in particular the vicissitudes faced by individuals stubbornly loyal to codes of personal honor. In both, he attempts to solve the difficulty of the period film with different methodologies: Marquise was filmed entirely in real locations, while Perceval was shot on constructed sets. As is so often the case when directors depart from their established style or narrative, the movies were largely greeted with incomprehension, and Rohmer wouldn’t make another period piece for over twenty years.
Rohmer’s second round of period films, consisting of The Lady and the Duke (2000), Triple Agent (2004), and Astrea and Celadon, are the last films that he made, when it might be said that he had nothing to lose. That these late works were undertaken without the benefit of a larger series framework may have been a circumstance imposed by the pragmatic acceptance of mortality—at eighty, it is difficult to kick off a multifilm cycle with any reasonable expectation of finishing it—but this shouldn’t imply that Rohmer had become frail or overcautious in his old age. Lady and the Duke, his first film of the twenty-first century, was also his first feature shot in digital video, and offered a perspective on the French Revolution that, in some quarters, was received as distinctly revanchist.
The Lady and the Duke was based on the journal of Grace Elliott, the Scottish mistress of the Duke of Orleans who bore firsthand witness to the Revolution, who is played in the film by Lucy Russell. Rather than trying to construct the lost, pre-Haussmannization Paris of 1790–94, Rohmer had his actors perform their outdoor scenes in front of a green-screen, then superimposed them onto painted backgrounds, the work of one Jean-Baptiste Marot, inspired by period engravings—the resulting film embodies the central, unresolved contradiction of Rohmer, being at once retrograde and absolutely modern. The popular theory that Elliott may have survived the Terror by appearing to work for both Royalists and Revolutionaries may have inspired Rohmer’s next film, Triple Agent, set in the years of the French Popular Front, immediately prior to World War II, and likewise dealing with a character of ambiguous loyalties, a former White Russian General in Paris (Serge Renko) who trades information with the Reds and Nazis alike. (Triple Agent is unique among Rohmer’s period films in depicting a time that the director himself lived through—he turned sixteen in 1936.)
Key to understanding Rohmer’s approach to period filmmaking is the fact that he is not endeavoring to revive the texture and rhythm of the past as it was in fact lived as, say, Roberto Rossellini would attempt in his own cycle of histories, begun a few years before The Marquise of O… Rather, he shows us a past as it has come to us through representation, either by its own artists or by those of future generations, sometimes centuries removed. A prologue to Astrea and Celadon states that the fifth-century Gauls which the film depicts are portrayed “as seventeenth-century readers imagined them,” and the film heavily draws on period renditions of the world of antiquity by Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens, and Simon Vouet, whose paintings Saturn, Conquered by Amor, Venus and Hope and Cupid and Psyche both appear in the film. The Marquise of O… is, for its part, structured around counterpoised quotations from the work of both French Neoclassicists and mitteleuropean Romantics, most notably Henry Fuseli and his The Nightmare. Painting even has a crucial role in Triple Agent, where discussions of aesthetics—representational versus abstract work—is a coded extension of political debate.
“Small beauties constitute great art,” Rohmer wrote in Cahiers in 1961. “We accept this in painting, why not in cinema?” The analogue between Rohmer’s filmmaking and painting is important, for his work is above all concerned with beauty—the tricky relationship between moral and physical allure, as well as the restorative effects of the natural world. Reliant as they are on the ineffable quality of beauty, Rohmer’s films are more than usually vulnerable to degradation by clumsy, insensate “restorations” of the digital kind; last year I saw a squeaky-clean hackwork DCP job of A Tale of Springtime (1990) that was bad enough to make me beat feet out of the cinema. The Marquise of O… and Perceval will be showing at BAM in DCP, the former for a full week, while the latter-days histories will all be showing in 35-mm prints. It is to be hoped that, in cleaning the patina off of Rohmer’s first histories, they haven’t been sanitized into oblivion.
“Period Rohmer: The Marquise of O… and Other Films” runs August 28–September 3 at BAMcinématek in New York.
THIS YEAR’S Festival del Film Locarno offered some of the most exciting films and programming I’ve seen at a major festival in recent memory. The August (and august) showcase in Italian Switzerland has long been a haven for experiments, debuts, and underappreciated gems, but in the past such fare has typically remained semihidden in secondary sidebars outside of the main competitions. In this edition, discoveries ranged across the full program; there was bigger billing for more challenging work and films of greatly different style and scale were given equal consideration. While commemorative celebrations of American stars and blockbusters occupied the biggest press conferences and the Piazza Grande, this year’s retrospective programming also included tributes to Soviet director Marlen Khutsiev—whose Infinitas (1992) and It Was the Month of May (1970) were major revelations to many in the audience—and to the acting career of Bulle Ogier, which placed seminal films from Jacques Rivette, Manoel de Oliveira, Barbet Schroder, and Alain Tanner under one billing.
Among the dozens of promising premieres of first and second films, shorts, and midlength essays, standouts included Filipino director Carlo Francisco Manatad’s Junilyn Has, a moody portrait of the routine domestic life and quiet escape planning of a nightclub dancer; Camilo Restrepo’s La Impresíon de una Guerra (Impression of a War), a multilayered essay on the ghosts of Colombian civil war; and Noite Sem Distância, Galician experimental filmmaker Lois Patiño’s brilliantly shot and colored study of history and topography on the Portugal/Galicia border
Winner of the Best Director prize in the Concorso Internazionale (Locarno’s top competition) was Andrzej Zulawski’s long-awaited Cosmos. A wild adaptation of the Wiltold Gombrowicz novel of the same name, Cosmos is an appropriately chaotic, bright, eerie, and crazed work. Zulawski translates Gombrowicz’s repetitions and neologisms into strange angles and awkward framing, vocal tics, and breathless pacing. In the novel, dialogue often sounds like it’s being spoken backward or doubled over. The dizziness and the quick changes lead the narrative into an unsteady forward momentum as it topples into the unknown. The film’s animation of the text can be sensorially overwhelming as scenes are rendered into relentless tableaux of action and noise. But this too-muchness feels at home in Zulawski’s hands, and he channels it into a captivating, annoying masterpiece.
Occupying the other end of the tonal spectrum in the Concorso Internazionale was Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, a slow and introspective portrait of her mother’s final years. The documentary unfolds in a series of shots of stifling interior spaces—at times resembling a kind of rough, contemporary videogram of Jeanne Dielman—and sotto voce conversations, most mundane, some harrowing. At the (initially) packed press screening, this combination frustrated a large number of attendees, and they departed swiftly and consistently, leaving an increasingly improved viewing environment. One journalist, apparently thinking this was Cannes, returned only to boo at the end. It made me glad that I don’t go to Cannes.
Julio Hernández Cordón, Te Prometo Anarquía (I Promise You Anarchy), 2015, HD video, color, sound, 88 minutes.
Sergio Oksman’s portrait of a tentatively reunited father and son, O’Futebol, is an alternate take on parent-child relations. Set during Oksman’s return to São Paulo to see his father after twenty years apart, the film explores the routine spaces inhabited by his father in this lost time and the remnants of a familial relationship after spoken and unspoken grievances. Their meeting is structured around the 2014 World Cup; they watch matches, that acceptable masculine form of spending time together. Observational and staged scenes blend together in an opaque narrative that finally breaks abruptly, even as the highs and lows of the games continue to punctuate the background. Akerman and Oksman each appear to have approached their work with openness and uncertainty—shooting and then seeing—but Oksman develops this into a methodically unique essay on the city, game, history, and family.
The core of Julio Hernández Cordón’s latest feature, Te Prometo Anarquía (I Promise You Anarchy) is a volatile relationship between two young men. With a no-future hopelessness that at points recalls 1990s works like Kids, the film follows a pair of skateboarding, blood-selling, directionless friends and lovers in current day Mexico City. But rather than being a story of youth out of joint, their teenage sense of immortality and rebelliousness resembles the actual mechanics of their day-to-day surroundings. The streets of Mexico are now in large part run by teenagers who can harness this always-in-the-present mentality into temporary gain. From this, the sense of general despair that permeates the film also transforms into a kind of knowledge.
The 68th edition of the Festival del film Locarno ran August 5–15.
I WISH I HAD A COPY of the script that Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig wrote for Baumbach’s comedy Mistress America, which stars Gerwig as Brooke, a thirty-year-old It Girl desperate to succeed at something before her shelf life expires. Brooke has a way with words. Her nonstop stream of non sequiturs, snarky putdowns, and paeans to her own accomplishments and ambitions defied my pathetic note-taking ability. I ended up with dozens of “maybe not exactly what she said” and “middle missing” appended to questionable transcriptions of gems that would have been worth reprinting here.
Or maybe the problem is that you need to hear the words as Gerwig speaks them, her timing a blend of Carole Lombard and Lucille Ball. This is the second screenplay on which she and Baumbach have collaborated. The first, Frances Ha (2012), also was directed by Baumbach and also starred Gerwig as a character that was not easy to like but, compared to Brooke, now seems irresistible. Frances Ha is rooted in the French New Wave; Mistress America is a riff on 1930s Hollywood screwballs, except that it’s in color and the antagonists at the center are not headed toward coupledom. While Brooke is the movie’s energetic object of fascination, its primary point of view belongs to Tracy (Lola Kirke), a Barnard creative writing freshman twelve years Brooke’s junior and about to become her stepsister because Tracy’s mom is engaged to Brooke’s dad.
It’s Tracy who has the movie’s first words: “Isn’t every story a story of betrayal?” Or maybe she says, “Isn’t every story an act of betrayal,” which would be tougher and more pointed because betrayal—actual or imaged, large or small—is Baumbach’s subject. In Mistress America, Brooke is betrayed by every friend and lover she has (or imagines she does). They do it as if by right because she’s a fountain of inspiration lacking in follow-through. Her former BFF Mamie Claire (Heather Lind) absconds with Brooke’s former boyfriend, her cats, and her J.Crew-perfect idea for T-shirts with flowers. Even worse, her current wealthy Greek boyfriend pulls out of her restaurant project. It is just possible, since we never see him, that said Greek boyfriend, or at least his interest in bankrolling a restaurant, is a figment of Brooke’s imagination, but in any case his real or imagined betrayal leaves Brooke no choice but to hit up her former boyfriend, now married to Mamie Claire and living in a sprawling, glass-walled, postmodern mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Baumbach uses that mansion as the site of an extended dazzling tour de force of gliding camera moves in and out and around sliding doors, while eight characters pursue their obvious or hidden agendas as they chase down or hide from one another, talking to and through and over everyone else. The great pleasure in Mistress America is the degree to which visual and verbal comedy amplify each other. But what happens in this intricately choreographed scene, which constitutes the entirety of the movie’s second act, is not merely filmmaking pyrotechnics (although if you love movies, that would be nearly enough). No, this intricate staging of attempted confrontation and avoidance climaxes in the revelation of a betrayal so horrible that it dwarfs the others. We learn that Tracy has been writing a story about Brooke, and that somewhere along the way her worship of Brooke has turned to contempt. When Brooke reads Tracy’s description of her as a “rotting carcass doomed to failure,” one can only make the analogy to what Lucian Freud’s subjects must feel when they look at their portraits, except in Brooke’s case there isn’t even the hope of being gifted with a drawing that will support her in old age.
But because Tracy is an ambitious and hyperbolic eighteen-year-old writer who nevertheless is not completely clueless about the moral issues involved in abusing a relationship for the sake of a good story, and Brooke, for all her shortcomings, is too fiercely alive to worry for long about being dead meat, there is never any doubt that some kind of rapprochement will occur before the two go their separate ways. Mistress America is above all else a movie about the kind of friendship between two women that, despite its brevity, will reverberate for years. Gerwig’s and Kirke’s performances go beyond words and gestures, making us aware of the characters’ inner fantasies of self and other. The movie is unimaginable without them.
Mistress America opens in select theaters on Friday, August 14th.
Whit Stillman, Metropolitan, 1990, Super 16, color, sound, 98 minutes.
A CONFESSION: I am a lapsed preppy. Using the term feels false, though—an affectation—as I was not a prep school/Ivy League legacy, which was the defining characteristic of true preppies in my day. My parents were not blue bloods but middle-class people from sleepy states (Minnesota, Vermont) who met in New York in the early 1960s. We were not wealthy and lived on the “border” of the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, but it was important to my mother that I attend “the best schools.” And so I did, starting with a private boys’ school in Manhattan (coat and tie from kindergarten on), leaving home for a leafy New England boarding school (Third through Sixth Forms), and then matriculating to that ancient university in Cambridge, Massachusetts (spires, not domes) known for its monstrous self-regard. My father died of brain cancer when I was twelve, and my mother struggled with tuition until she too died shortly before my college graduation.
In short, my background was parallel to that of Metropolitan writer-director Whit Stillman (minus the great-grandfather banker/patriarch), one generation later. I went to school with Rockefellers and Roosevelts. I escorted young women to debutante balls, three sheets to the wind in white tie and tails. I knew the types of people Stillman celebrated in his debut film; in fact, I knew one of its cast members personally. My internal perspective on that milieu, when I was in it, was fairly well represented by Metropolitan’s Tom Townsend, the slightly pretentious, intellectually self-serious character of “limited resources” and left-leaning impulses who has to rent his tuxedo (the shame) and is nominally of that world but forever outside of it. Whenever asked about him, I say that Whit Stillman makes horror movies about my upbringing. The “exoticism” of his preferred tableau of privileged youth, which I think of as WASP porn, is lost on me. I lived it, and I can say that it was both more interesting and more boring than he makes it out to be.
Metropolitan is currently enjoying a theatrical re-release in honor of its twenty-fifth anniversary, and it comes at an odd time in American history, a postcrash hangover period marked by extreme income inequality and the attendant vilification of the ultrarich 1 percent. I look forward to reading reviews by critics, currently in their twenties, who haven’t seen the film before. They may understandably have a more bemused view of the princesses and princelings of Park Avenue than my own generation did at the time of its initial release. They may regard this klatch of preppies as impossibly distant, relics from a rapidly receding past, viewing them as I might view knights in chain mail. But then they might miss the Jane Austen references and F. Scott patina that settles on the characters like a light Christmas snowfall.
To the film: Right away we’re in cucumber-sandwiches-with-the-Auchinclosses territory with the credit sequence’s Jazz Age font and Stillman’s production company names: “Westerly Films in association with Allagash Films” (I went to school with someone named LeGrand Elebash). The setting is “Manhattan. Christmas Vacation. Not so long ago.” A group of well-heeled young friends, self-titled the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, attend a series of debutante balls. On the way out of the first ball, they encounter “outsider” Tom Townsend. He goes to Princeton and has a wealthy father, but his parents have divorced and Tom has been disinherited, so he lives with his mother in a modest Upper West Side apartment. (This plot point mirrors Stillman’s own adolescence, though he went to Harvard, not Princeton.) Despite his Holden Caulfield–like contempt for the socialite scene (he quickly declares that he’s a Fourierist), Tom is taken in by the Rat Pack’s snobbiest member and ends up joining the group as an escort for the rest of the balls. There is a classic love triangle and a lot of talk—one of the Rat Pack is a somewhat preposterous pseudointellectual who insists on engaging the others in extended discourses on love, life, and the finer points of social class. By the end, the clique largely scatters, but the love triangle appears to resolve in the correct way.
What Metropolitan gets right: the complete absence of parents other than the mothers of the two characters who don’t fit in (Tom and the shy woman who has a crush on him, Audrey). In my day, such parents—often divorced or otherwise mired in solipsistic pursuits—were distant cyborgs who let their teenagers play-act at “adult” social life in their opulent living rooms while they went out or retired to bed early. Their lack of involvement in their children’s actual lives was staggering and allowed for much more serious debauchery than anything the Rat Pack got up to in the film. (I have a pet theory that my generation’s tendency toward helicopter parenting is an overcorrection of this dynamic.) Failing all else, you would occasionally end up at J.G. Melon, a small, dive-ish pub on the corner of Seventy-Fourth Street and Third Avenue, late at night, as two of the male characters do after an unsuccessful bid to recapture the camaraderie of the deb ball nights. Southampton was indeed known for its European aristocracy and nouveaux riches, another country entirely from the Waspish false modesty and “arts colony” vibe of the equally moneyed Easthampton. Distinguished by his baronial title and way with date rape, Rick Von Sloneker, the villain of the piece, rings somewhat true (particularly in Southampton), but he’s a type—a mildly menacing, casually sociopathic rich kid. Patrick Bateman would eat him for breakfast.
But I never met (or even heard of) anyone remotely like the self-consciously dandyish and proudly snobby Nick Smith (played by Stillman regular Chris Eigeman) or the annoyingly earnest house “philosopher” Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), who frets throughout the film about his class’s downward mobility and ultimate failure (which is nevertheless a real phenomenon, known as “WASP Rot”—see George W. Bush). It may be unfair to fault a fiction film for its lack of verisimilitude, but Metropolitan’s cheap but resourceful cinematography and fly-on-the-wall view of an exclusive clique of upper-crust “insiders” gives the film a quasi-documentary feel, and it’s no secret that the script draws heavily on Stillman’s own college years. Stillman has said that he was trying to “preserve in amber” a real scene that he directly experienced, so I can’t help but compare it to a later iteration of the same scene.
When I mentioned the cliché characterization of Stillman as the “WASP Woody Allen” to a friend of mine, a well-known Jewish essayist and film critic who hails from Brooklyn, he responded, “Woody Allen is the WASP Woody Allen,” which made me laugh. And that’s the problem with Stillman—we don’t need a WASP Woody Allen; Woody holds it down just fine for Manhattan’s mayonnaise set. As over-the-top as its satire is, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (book, not film) felt more true to what I went through than anything in Stillman’s filmography. Indeed, had Stillman transposed Ellis’s Less than Zero from LA to the Upper East Side, I might have warmed to that version of Metropolitan. It may be asking too much for characters who value traditional social conventions to be more unconventional, but there it is. Stillman’s characters are trying to become their parents as fast as they can; we put it off for as long as possible. I managed to avoid it entirely. Ta-ta.
The twenty-fifth-anniversary theatrical re-release of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan opens Friday, August 7, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and August 14 at Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles, with additional openings in select cities to follow. Stillman and members of the cast will be available for Q&As August 7-9.
CHINESE MONEY, implicitly or explicitly, has become a major factor at the contemporary multiplex—hacked Sony e-mails revealed a round of anxious self-censoring before the Adam Sandler vehicle Pixels began shooting, while Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation arrived in cinemas with the stamp of the government-run Chinese Movie Channel among its many sponsors. It remains to be seen how recent economic tremors will impact investment in movies, but for now investors seem eager to throw yuan into film projects—so long, that is, as they aren’t Chinese independent cinema.
In contrast to the emergence of China as a box-office force there is the star-crossed fate of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, founded in 2004 by Li Xianting, an art critic and curator. In 2012, when the festival’s ninth edition was held in the far eastern artist-community suburb of Songzhuang, a suspicious power outage interrupted the opening screening, forcing organizers to carry on in a jerry-rigged theater in their offices. The following year, only three of the festival’s nine venues were able to run more or less according to schedule, while the website for the Li Xianting Film Fund, the event’s organizing entity, went offline abruptly. Not even a pretext of soft authority was maintained on the occasion of the next announced fest, in August 2014. Already the Li Xianting Film School workshop, whose participants supply a great deal of the material screened at BIFF, had been forced to operate clandestinely, and when the time came for the festival to begin, cops backed up by plainclothes “villagers” blocked spectator entry to the Film Fund’s offices, confiscating cell phones and cameras. Li was forced to sign a statement asserting that no fest would be held that year, along with organizer Fan Rong and artistic director Wang Hongwei, a star of several films by the acclaimed (and embattled) Jia Zhangke, including A Touch of Sin (2013). All of this is in keeping with a concerted effort to discourage filmmaking outside of official channels from screening either at home or abroad, so preventing the emergence of more problematic high-profile artists like Jia. There was no rescheduling, and the BIFF has not been held since.
Of course Li and his compatriots would like their festival to be known for its films rather than its persecution, and it is here that the in absentia “Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–14” program hopes to be of service. It is made up of screenings scattered across multiple New York City venues, beginning at Anthology Film Archives and then continuing to satellite events at Asia Society, the Maysles Cinema, Union Docs, and other participants. The program was selected by formerly Beijing-based critic and curator Shelley Kraicer; Karin Chien, whose dGenerate films has been instrumental in distributing the best of mainland Chinese cinema in the US; and J. P. Sniadecki, whose documentary The Iron Ministry opens in New York on August 21 and who has two films on the bill of fare, his collaboration with Huang Xiang and Xu Ruotao, Yumen (2013), at AFA, and People’s Park (2012), at Asia Society.
To select a “Best of . . . ” would seem to be a daunting task; in both 2012 and 2013, the BIFF showed over one hundred films, while the 2014 edition was meant to host seventy-six premieres. (Alongside Chinese independent films, the BIFF plays films from around the world, with an especial preference for films from developing nations.) The program encompasses documentary, narrative, experimental, and, in a program at the Museum of Chinese in America on Centre Street, animated works, showcasing a variety of regional dialects: not only Mandarin but Cantonese, Hunan, Sichuanese, Shandong, and Gansu.
While China has jumped into the art market both feet first, it has been considerably more circumspect when it comes to film festivals—not only is noncommercial cinema difficult to respectably monetize, it has historically been regarded as a potentially destabilizing medium: not art, but propaganda. The threat BIFF poses is one of alternative history, manifest in the festival’s commitment to documentary, amassed in an archive which was purportedly seized by the Chinese officials. In some cases this is a means of restoring a connection to the prerevolutionary world, as in Wen Hui’s Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories (2012), in which the filmmaker interviews her eighty-three-year-old great-aunt, who candidly recounts, seemingly without bitterness, both her suffering as a child bride in prerevolutionary China and the daily abuse she faced as the daughter of landowners in the postrevolutionary People’s Republic, a real worst-of-both-worlds existence.
Yang Mingming, Female Directors, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 43 minutes.
Third Grandmother’s Stories plays with a testimony from another generation, Yang Mingming’s Female Directors (2012), a rough-hewn, rambunctious, and endearingly convoluted selfie mockumentary in which the filmmaker costars as one of two recent film school graduates on the hustle in Beijing who discover that they’ve been sharing the same benefactor/boyfriend. Along with Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone (2011), a remarkably poised, redolent autobiographical work in which the filmmaker re-creates the vivid textures of her girlhood in Hunan Province and the body shame endemic to the culture in which she was raised, it makes for a strong program of films that explore the degree to which equality between the sexes has remained a lip-serviced ideal in Chinese society. (Egg and Stone screens in a one-off at the Made in NY Media Center in DUMBO on August 17.)
Luo Li’s Emperor Visits the Hell (2012), like Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories, endeavors to connect present to past—in this case the sixteenth century. The narrative is drawn from the early chapters of Wu Cheng’en’s Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, which tells of the monk Xuanzang’s importing of Buddhist sutras from India and has been the subject of countless adaptations, including a lavish forthcoming Chinese-American coproduction directed by Zhang Jinlai. Luo’s approach is to defamiliarize the material by radically banalizing it, the stuff of myth made to reflect a contemporary culture of cronyism, currying favor, covering up mismanagement, passing the buck, and greasing palms. In Luo’s hands the Dragon King (Mai Dian) becomes a petty gangster and Taizong Emperor Li Shimin (Li Wen) a stout bureaucrat who, at the film’s close, is seen breaking his character over a bibulous dinner, mouthing off about China as a peasant society that needs enlightenment.
Among the principal attractions of Emperor Visits the Hell is Jie Ren’s grisaille black-and-white digital cinematography, equaled by that of Wang Xiaozhen’s queasy comedy Around that Winter (2013), the story of a young man’s homecoming in rural Shandong with his girlfriend in tow, and a film that announces a comic sensibility so bizarre and hyperspecific that you can’t help but respect it. Wang, it seems, is determined to advance his narrative almost but not quite exclusively in scenes of bodily functions, including sex and—more frequently—bathroom breaks. The blessing and curse of mainland Chinese independent filmmaking is that it is, inasmuch as anything can be today, the product of a hermit culture, hemmed in by the Great Firewall of China and a hostile government, forced to feel things out for itself in the relative absence of existing models to emulate. This breeds genuine eccentrics, always in short supply—you’d have to be a little cracked to take on these odds.
“Cinema on the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–14” runs August 7–September 13 at Anthology Film Archives, Asia Society, Maysles Cinema, the Museum of Chinese in America, and UnionDocs.
A KICK IN THE LILY WHITE TEETH to England’s gilt-hedged public imagery back in 1985, My Beautiful Laundrette raised thirty-year-old mixed-race writer Hanif Kureishi from a stymied playwright (“the theater thing hadn’t been working out for me”) to a counterculture hero, established forty-four-year-old vet Stephen Frears as a world-class director, and gave a struggling twenty-eight-year-old aspirant named Daniel Day-Lewis his first Brando-Dean close-up. Kureishi now likens Day-Lewis’s iconic intro under a lamppost to the image of a rent-boy Clint Eastwood; Frears compares his come-hither gaze to Marlene Dietrich. That they’re both right indicates why the role made Day-Lewis a star and the film became a convention-smashing international sensation.
My Beautiful Laundrette was produced for Britain’s Channel 4 and was only picked up for theatrical distribution after a jubilant reception at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Filmed on serviceable-for-TV 16 mm—ranging from beguiling crane shots to interiors as grainy as a Brighton beach towel—it’s a striking film but not a pretty one. Criterion has cleaned up the repairable blemishes, but it still looks like DP Oliver Stapleton is working his damnedest to shoot an urban Johnny Guitar on equipment and stock left over from an industrial short on workplace safety. From its loopy musical theme of a synthesized washing machine to its agitating way of flipping dramatic setups upside down, nothing here is taken for granted. When the car our hero is chauffeuring is attacked by racist droogs, instead of being terrorized he gets out and strides over to the fetchingly lit countenance of Day-Lewis; all that’s missing is a musical cue to prompt a sweeping MGM pas de deux.
The idiosyncratic beauties of Laundrette emerge from how it grabs gray socialized realism by the horns and wrestles it into breathless submission. Coupling its blithe/flinty gay romance to the black-market comedy of Pakistani immigrants climbing over each other to get on board Thatcher’s “enterprise society,” the movie never proceeds as you’re expecting. A spurned wife employs witchcraft on her husband’s English mistress, Brechtian dialogue’s served up like zippy takeout food, quaint running gags and operatic emotions abound, while the taste-shifting mise-en-scène can from scene to scene, shot to shot, feel like a madcap reconsideration of British cinema (with a side order of influential Americana) shoehorned into ninety-some minutes. Though Laundrette features numerous reflective pauses (literally—Frears loves playing off windows and mirrors), few movies manage to engage viewers on so many rudely lyric levels, keeping the audience nervous with anticipation about what might be coming around the next reel.
“It’s all libido, it’s all excitement, it’s all energy,” Kureishi says in a terrific interview on the disc, describing the movie in terms of sexual awakening: The drama, and comedy, of self-invention here clearly owes as much to David Bowie as it does to the usual film or literary antecedents. But in the volatile jostling within the immigrant clan, where Gordon Warneke’s Omar is wedged between his father the alcoholic-invalid leftist-intellectual (given a bitter, gimlet-eyed, Einstein-haired dolefulness by Rosan Seth) and his precariously rich arch-capitalist uncle (Saeed Jaffrey), there is a defiant aroma of Philip Roth’s extended-family infighting. Pakistani, Jew, Italian, or Irish, this is the way of immigrant subcultures dealing with assimilation and resentment: a paternal nurture that burdens its object to the point of intergenerational asphyxiation.
Day-Lewis’s Johnny is the bruised wild card who motivates Omar’s transformation from passive son to aggressive materialist without even meaning to. He’s a glassy male inversion of the femme fatale figure—dangerous, erratic, alluring, Omar’s soul mate, his racial antagonist and his class inferior with the complex to show for it. Johnny’s pals are white-power bully boys who are nonetheless about as intimidating as a handful of Guys and Dolls revivalists outfitted in toy-store glasses, ska couture, and skinhead braces. Their violent outbursts have a cartoonish pathos—they are working-class yobs who have fallen so far down the Thatcher totem pole they have to look up when flushing themselves down the toilet.
The dynamics of race, sexuality, and political impotence in My Beautiful Laundrette are so persuasive because it turns academic bywords like postcolonialism hilariously square and inadequate when confronted with its supple, twisted, capricious spirit. Over the course of the movie, Kureishi develops a manner of giving characters reams of exposition and mini–position papers to espouse, then using that overzealous, over-explicit language as a way for these talkative, preening figures to hoist themselves by their exhibitionist petards. Ideology becomes part of the teeming decor, but like stiff middle-class cushiness for Douglas Sirk, Frears finds poignantly ironic resonances in rebounding melodrama and arrested emotions off flat surfaces. (This would have been a far straighter movie—and not merely sexually—if the role of Johnny had gone to Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, or God help us, Kenneth Branagh, who were all under consideration.)
The separate interviews provided here with Kureishi and Frears (“Maybe I brought the hooligan element around”) give an uncommonly clear sense of what was at stake for each of them in the material and the collaboration—how their differences in background complemented and goaded them into pushing the material ever further outside of personal comfort zones. Aside from the gangster cousin Salim (Derrick Branche), who is a dead ringer for Richard Romanus in Mean Streets (1973), the genius of the film is how well Day-Lewis and Warneke and the rest confuse/confound all those white-boy Scorsesean mythologies. If there is a secret discordant heart of the film (as Amy Robinson was for Mean Streets), it’s Rita Wolf’s Tania, the rebellious daughter who breathes acrimony and impatience. She makes the blustery men look like silly poseurs addicted to their own infantilization: She delivers the best line (“I’d rather drink my own urine”) and gets the best exit (vanishing into thin air). The movie has a pert happy ending—boy gets boy, after a bloody denouement—but Tania is the most haunting character for being so thoroughly unreconciled to everything.
My Beautiful Laundrette is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.