Alice Rohrwacher, The Wonders, 2014, Super 16, color, sound, 111 minutes.
ONE WEEK INTO PRESS SCREENINGS for the New York Film Festival, which begins September 26, and already the offerings—or at least their makers—have begun to infiltrate my REM sleep. During my waking hours, however, several of the supple, stinging aphorisms in Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language have returned, sometimes unbidden, to my mind, particularly the opening pensée: “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.”
A variation—often its inverse—of that Wildean observation (I could have sworn Oscar himself said it in “The Decay of Lying”) proved to be a guiding principle for several films on view, in which facts, whether those of autobiography or historical events, are transmuted into fiction. Set in rustic central Italy, The Wonders revolves around a family that bears traces of writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s own: The filmmaker, like her adolescent protagonist Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the oldest of four girls, is the daughter of a German father and an Italian mother (played, in a further bit of oblique backstory fidelity, by Rohrwacher’s elder sister Alba) who make their living as beekeepers. Similar to its predecessor, Corpo Celeste, an NYFF selection in 2011, The Wonders is an uncommonly graceful coming-of-age story, rooted as much in the fantastical as the material. Of its otherwordly pleasures, none is more delightful than the bizarre regional-promo spot—the filming of which Gelsomina and her sibs stumble onto after a day splashing in a lake—that spotlights Monica Bellucci in Cicciolina-like fake blonde tresses. The movie also honors the spirit of the beehive, relaying, in several detailed scenes, the hard work of harvesting honey—labor that Gelsomina takes so seriously that at one point she is referred to as “the head of the family,” an undue burden against which the teenager slowly begins to chafe.
Not much older than this Italian central character is Harley, played by electrifying newcomer Arielle Holmes, in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, a tough, lean tale of homeless scag addicts. The film is based on Holmes’s as-yet unpublished book Mad Love in New York City, a chronicle of her teenage vagrancy and obsessive, self-destructive passion for a fellow junkie named Ilya (whose movie incarnation is played by the cadaverous Caleb Landry Jones). Dramatizing incidents from her own extremely recent past, Holmes brings a feral, corrosive energy to each scene, the enormity of her needs—for drugs, for Ilya’s love—made even more terrifyingly incongruous by the fact that they are expressed by such a slight, delicate young woman. The Safdie brothers’ movie has an obvious precedent in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971), another tale of a heroin-hooked couple that was filmed, like much of Heaven Knows What, on the Upper West Side. Where Panic features a pre-stardom (i.e., pre-Godfather) Al Pacino in full Method-y, showboating glory, Heaven, thanks to Holmes’s piercing howls of self-abasement, remains tethered to scorched earth.
Broader in scope, ’71, by first-time director Yann Demange, mines the Troubles, the nationalist conflict between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic republicans that convulsed Northern Ireland (and many other countries) for three decades, to create a taut thriller. (By sheer coincidence, the film screened just three days after the death of Ian Paisley, the hardline Northern Irish Protestant minister and politician whose views further inflamed the sectarian strife.) Tracking a British soldier (Jack O’Connell) abandoned by his unit after a deadly riot in Belfast during the year of the title, ’71, though somewhat diminished by a trite ending, fluidly and potently stages its never-ending chaos, mayhem born of expedient, deadly alliances.
The 52nd New York Film Festival runs September 26–October 12.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language screens September 27 and October 1; Yann Demange’s ’71 screens September 27 and 28; Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What screens October 2 and 5; Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders screens October 3 and 4.
Eldar Shengelaia, Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story, 1984, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes.
I’M OPPOSED ON GENERAL PRINCIPLE to the assumption of audience ignorance—“Ten Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” and so on—but in the case of “Discovering Georgian Cinema,” an exception can be made. The two-part program, arranged by Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive in collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and playing more or less simultaneously at both institutions, offers a look at work that is scarcely available beyond the Black Sea, and on 35-mm exhibition prints, to boot.
Sergei Parajanov, perhaps the most internationally renowned Georgian-born filmmaker on the basis of works like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Color of Pomegranates (1968), doesn’t even show up in the program’s first part, subtitled “A Family Affair.” (A DCP restoration of Pomegranates, however, plays the Walter Reade Theater on October 2, as part of the Fifty-Second New York Film Festival.) That “Family Affair” is a reference to the close-knit nature of Georgian cinema—historically centered around the Gruzia Film Studios—a film culture whose interconnections are in many cases blood ties. (In the booklet published in conjunction with the series, a table labeled “Family Connections in Georgian Cinema” illustrates this fact.)
To take one prominent example: The series’ opening night screening is the 1928 silent Eliso by Nikoloz Shengelaia, whose sons, Eldar and Giorgi, would become accomplished directors in their own right. Noutsa Gogoberidze, matriarch of a line of filmmakers, also founded the family business in the silent period. Noutsa’s daughter, Lana Gogoberidze—represented here by her 1979 Several Interviews on Personal Matters and 1984 The Day Is Longer than the Night—grew up never having seen her mother’s films, which were banned after she was sentenced to twelve years in prison and exile as “family of an enemy of the people.” (Noutsa’s husband, Levan Gogoberidze, was a former first secretary of the Georgian communist party, killed as part of the Great Purge.) MoMA will play Noutsa’s recently rediscovered 1930 Buba, a short documentary made in collaboration with painter David Kakabadze about rugged life in the Racha highlands of the country’s north, a gorgeous film with a sacrosanct feeling for the power of the elements, thrumming with the energy of cloud formations coursing over the Caucasus, rushing mountain streams, and electric montage. (Buba shares a bill with Felicità, a 2009 short by Noutsa’s granddaughter, Salomé Alexi.)
Of the other Georgian silents, a word should be said for Kote Mikaberidze’s madcap debut feature My Grandmother (1929), which plays in the program’s second half, “Beyond the Blue Mountains.” Aleqsandre Takaishvili, a mixture of Harold Lloyd and Barton Fink, plays the overseer of an inefficient state office who must scramble to right his career after he’s “fired for bureaucratic excess.” The manager’s dismissal is visualized in the terms of an editorial cartoon—he is literally impaled by a gigantic ink pen thrown by a righteously indignant member of the youth communist league. Returning home in despair, he hangs himself from a chandelier, a fact which escapes the notice of his spoiled wife and daughter when they barrel through the door laden with new consumer goods and jitterbug wildly around the apartment. This should give some idea of the film’s anything-goes eccentricity—and Mikaberidze seems determined to leave no effect unused, toying with stop-motion animation, distorting lenses, looming angles, freeze-frames, and whatever else he can get his hands on.
Takaishvili can also be seen as a magistrate in Magdana’s Donkey, the 1955 feature debut of Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkeidze, then fresh from the Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. The film, which took the Grand Prix at Cannes, is apparently regarded as the forerunner of the Georgian New Wave to come, but I must confess that beyond some stirring plein air photography, I found very little in this tale of a peasant family resuscitating a left-for-dead donkey beyond the most wearisome clichés of socialist realism—the shamelessly cute-as-a-button orphans, the piggish boss barking orders with a mouthful of bread bought from the sweat of others’ labor, the stoically suffering mother in beatific close-ups staring off toward the workers’ paradise to come.
Unpromising beginnings aside, Georgia would have its New Wave, producing several films that found renown in the larger world. Abuladze, who balanced Christian mysticism with a well-developed sense of the absurd, became a figure of unparalleled importance, represented here by his decades-spanning trilogy of The Plea (1967), The Wishing Tree (1977), and Repentance (1984/87)—the last depicting the despotic mayoral reign of a petty potentate who has Hitler’s mustache but in many other respects recalls that infamous son of Tiflis, Joe Stalin. Parajanov, a more cosmopolitan figure, wouldn’t take on a specifically Georgian subject until his 1984 The Legend of Suram Fortress, completed after a decade of persecution by the Soviet authorities, while Giorgi Shengelaia may have found the most quintessentially Georgian subject of all in his Pirosmani (1969). An austere, highly individual biopic that imagines the life of self-taught painter Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918), the film comprises a series of tableaux whose head-on perspective and figural grouping imitates compositions favored by the painter himself. It’s a work suffused with a pervasive melancholy—Avtandil Varazi’s stubbornly uncompromised Pirosmani gradually grays and stoops while everyone else around him seems to stay the same age. And no End of History nostrums here—there’s nothing to imply that a Pirosmani living twenty years later would’ve fared much better.
Eldar Shengelaia’s 1968 An Unusual Exhibition, about an aspirant sculptor who turns to carving tombstone monuments, is regarded as a sort of companion film to his younger brother’s work. I can’t comment on the connection, not having seen the film at present, though I found much to admire in Eldar’s 1984 Blue Mountains. Despite the film’s pastoral title, its action is confined almost entirely to the dusty corridors of an unsturdy publishing house in Tbilisi. A writer bearing manuscripts traverses these halls attempting to harangue the committee members with the authority to move his work’s publication forward into reading it. Seasons change, but their self-absorbed indifference scarcely does—here we are not far from the vision of bureaucratic lassitude seen in My Grandmother, where functionaries pass time by dropping globs of spit on cockroaches or buffeting a secretary with love letters folded into paper planes. In Blue Mountains, however, there is no comeuppance for the toadies or salvation by way of the young communists. While the executives carry on with their interminable meetings, the whole institution finally comes apart at the seams around them, as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic was about to do.
Films like Repentance and Blue Mountains anticipate the end of one era, though “Discovering Georgian Cinema” continues to track the national cinema’s tradition of dissidence past the establishment of an independent Georgian state in 1991. There is no telling if Mikheil Saakashvilithe ex-president who presided over the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and was revealed in a recent New York Times piece to be plotting his comeback from Williamsburg, Brooklynwill make an appearance at MoMA, but director Eldar Shengelaia, who served on the Parliament of Georgia from 1990 to 2004, will be in New York to present screenings of Eliso, Pirosmani, and Blue Mountains. His comments on the State of the Nation are to be greatly anticipated.
“ACRIMONY AND UMBRAGE, tears, door-slamming, broken dishes, jeers, cold silences, whispers, raised eyebrows, the determination to take no notice, the whole classic paraphernalia of insult and injury is Tennessee Williams’ hope-chest,” Mary McCarthy wrote in a spectacularly negative review of A Streetcar Named Desire for Partisan Review in 1948. Though I tend to share McCarthy’s antipathy to the playwright’s work, I don’t think the liabilities she lists are insurmountable. They are, in fact, elevated to fascinating, florid heights by Elizabeth Taylor in the three film adaptations of Williams plays she starred in: Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and Joseph Losey’s Boom (1968).
The first two movies both hinge on Taylor’s knowledge of a secret—homosexuality—so unspeakable that torrents of words around the subject inevitably spill forth. “It’s got to be told and you never let me tell it!” Maggie “the Cat” Pollitt shrieks in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to her constantly soused husband, Brick (Paul Newman), a onetime football hero who hasn’t touched his concupiscent wife in months. The unmarked antecedent of it in Maggie’s aggrieved claim is eventually revealed to be the wretched set of circumstances surrounding the suicide of Brick’s gridiron teammate Skipper: her jealousy of the closeness the two men shared; her attempt, abandoned at the last minute, to seduce her husband’s buddy; Skipper’s desperate phone calls to an indifferent Brick after Maggie’s machinations. Movie Maggie gets to “tell it,” but only part of it; the Motion Picture Production Code demanded the excision of the original play’s more explicit references to the true nature of Brick and Skipper’s relationship. Though Taylor’s speech in this Mississippi Delta–set story also demonstrates conspicuous elision, the letter g all but eliminated from the alphabet—“You were such an excitin’ lover”—the actress flourishes when delivering her character’s self-evident proclamations: “Maggie the Cat is alive!” (The line is spoken by a woman who had just escaped death: During the filming of Cat, Taylor was granted permission to fly with her third husband, producer Mike Todd, to an event in New York in his private plane, Lucky Liz, but a bad cold prevented her from making the trip. Lucky Liz crashed in New Mexico, killing Todd and the three others on board.)
Like Maggie, the ultimately talking-cured Catherine Holly in the garish Southern gay-gothic Suddenly, Last Summer also has a penchant for referring to herself in the third person: “She’s here, Doctor. Miss Catherine is here,” she says to John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a psychosurgeon. (Monty Clift is—barely—alive: Suddenly is the actor’s third and final film with Taylor, who rushed to his aid on May 12, 1956, the night he smashed his car into a telephone pole after leaving a dinner party at her house.) Dr. Cukrowicz has been summoned by the moneyed Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) to lobotomize Catherine, her niece. The imperious older woman insists on the procedure so her relative will cease “her dreadful, obscene babbling” about Sebastian, Violet’s beloved son, who died under mysterious circumstances while on holiday with Catherine in the Spanish resort town Cabeza de Lobo—a fictional place made even more mythic by Taylor’s insistent Castilian lisp when pronouncing the last syllable of the first word. What’s most unreal, though, are the sordid descriptions that come pouring out of Catherine after she’s given a shot of truth serum: Her gay cousin, we learn, was eaten alive by the young Iberian trade he had solicited. (Unlike that of Cat, this traumatic recapitulation was given a special dispensation by the Production Code, which, according to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, concluded: “Since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.”)
As Catherine nears the climax of this gruesome flashback, Taylor lets out a piercing cry of Heeelllllppppp! The moment typifies what Wayne Koestenbaum, in his magisterial essay on the actress, “The Elizabeth Taylor Puzzle,” collected in Cleavage (2000), calls her “vocal incongruity”: “[H]er voice sometimes curdles, as when she screams at the end of Suddenly, Last Summer, and we hear a dip or hollow or indentation inside the scream...” The sounds that Taylor makes in Boom (written by Williams, adapting his 1963 play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) startle, confuse, delight, and terrify, often all at once, as with her first words uttered in the film: “Pain! Injection!” Playing the monstrous, dying Sissy Goforth, who lives in a villa on an island in the Mediterranean that she has essentially declared a nation-state, Taylor speaks pidgin Italian and exchanges, as a bizarre greeting, a series of yahoos with Noël Coward (playing the Witch of Capri.). Responding to the recital of the first stanza of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” by costar (and then spouse) Richard Burton, Taylor lets out, in her blowsiest register, a befuddled Whaaaaat? Pure folly and often unendurable, Boom was instructively categorized for me recently by a friend and fellow Taylor fan as part of the actress’s “avant-garde period.” I’m not sure which films would constitute the bookends of this “phase” of the actress’s career—1967’s Doctor Faustus to the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads? More generously, I’m inclined to say every project she starred in bears the trace of her innovation and experimenting, each role an exercise in breaking down—and rendering superfluous—the distinction between “good” and “bad” acting.
“Tennessee Williams” runs at Film Forum September 26–October 6. Boom screens October 3; Suddenly, Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof screen October 4–5.
David Lynch, Eraserhead, 1977, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 89 minutes. Henry Spencer (John Nance). Photo: Catherine Coulson.
IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT, a couple days before the end of 1979. A young woman is driving past a movie theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, going nowhere but away. She argued with a boyfriend while trying to watch an X show at Madame Wong’s: Sick of his macho-crybaby shit, she shoved him into some angry skinheads, jumped in her rusty Datsun, and bolted. On KROQ, Frazier Smith’s following “Search and Destroy” with “Baby’s on Fire”...
It’s almost 12 AM now, though who trusts the clocks in LA? Streets are pretty deserted, but she sees an orderly queue of people lined up at the theater’s box office. MIDNIGHT SHOW, says the marquee. FRIDAY: ERASERHEAD. SATURDAY: PINK FLAMINGOS. What the hell is an Eraserhead? Porn, maybe? Didn’t look like a porn crowd, gay or straight. Nor the glittery trick-or-trashers who came out for The Rocky Horror Picture Show or even the hardy Pink Flamingos faithful. Looked more like the people at the X gig, both onstage and off. She turns this over in her mind for a slow block or two before making a U-turn and going back.
The movie is starting when she gets into a seat. Black-and-white, eerie, bewildering—darkness visceral. Like some lost artifact from an obsolete universe. First, the ghostly sideways image of a man with an electrocuted pompadour superimposed over a craggy planetoid and a starry background. He floats out of shot and the camera moves in on the planetoid, which she’s thinking might be a fossilized brain: Camera descends into the crevices like a coal miner, while the sound track’s murmur becomes a roar of machine and organic sounds all collapsed into a single keening drone.
This, she imagines, is what a black hole sounds like, aural gravity sucking her into the images. Now there’s another man on the screen, or some kind of half-man, half-demiurge, a living statue covered in growths and craters and cobwebs, sitting beside a broken window, in the dead of night. There are switches in front of him, as at a railroad yard. Sideways man returns, the screen all to himself, his mouth opening like a fish asking an underwater question. Some kind of phantom being emerges from his mouth. Deformed man pulls the switches (there’s an almost classical beauty to him—like a god born with birth defects) and the being is yanked away. It lands in a muddy pool of water and the camera follows, the camera emerging through another hole in the ground into the light where our big-haired hero is pausing anxiously before scurrying back through the industrial flatlands toward his lair. Jesus, the woman thinks. Did that asshole at Wong’s put something in my drink?
Eraserhead gradually lurches into a simple, primal story. The man with humongous hair is called Henry. His room includes an earthen mound for a bedside vase, a record player with a Fats Waller organ 78 on the turntable, and peas in his dresser drawer. Henry has the deadpan manners of a silent film comic, but shot through with genuine terror: He is hanging on by the barest possible margin. He will visit his girlfriend Mary and her family for supper. Mary has the permanently stricken look of somebody who has seen something unspeakable and can’t get it out of her frantic head. Father’s a cheerful idiot, while the mother’s a tense, unstable enforcer who cuts the small talk and tells Henry why he’s really been invited. Mary got pregnant, secretly had his baby, and he’s going to marry Mary or else.
The picture leaps ahead to Henry’s room: Mary and he and baby make three. Except baby isn’t precisely, or even remotely, human: eyes and a mouth swaddled in bandages, with a newt-eel–umbilical cord body underneath, a grotesque sock puppet made poetic, diseased, mutely sentient flesh. Suddenly it’s as if the voice behind every physically disquieting punk song—Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution,” the Germs’ “Lexicon Devil,” and the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies”—had found its apotheosis in the form of this squirming limbless fetus-child.
At this point, the woman who ducked into the theater feels a rush of sickened, giddy understanding, but of—or by—what, she couldn’t begin to tell you. The more concretely nightmarish and nauseating and perversely empathetic Eraserhead becomes, the more it seems to be speaking in mysterious tongues she somehow understands better than English. Then she remembers the rest of the audience, which she’d completely blocked out. There are a few gasps, some too-knowing laughter, a testy couple grumbling on their way out (“I thought midnight movies were s’posed to be fun”).
There are also folks like her, tuned into the movie’s ecstatically negative wavelength and translating those tongues into the idioms of their own fears or hopes. One guy to her left is just quietly rocking back and forth, his eyes closed, mouthing the sparse lines in soundless unison, like a jazz cat she knew who listened to Complete Communion on headphones while fingering the notes on his horn in “Right on!” solidarity.
“Eraserhead is Eraserhead,” the filmmaker will tell more than one interviewer. No one in the theater has ever heard of him, but half of them will use those exact words in telling friends or loved ones or smart-asses whose cages they feel like rattling this film is really unlike anything they’ve seen, even if they’ve seen it all. Postgraduate types will throw in or throw out allusions to Cocteau and Un Chien andalou, Bartleby the Scrivener and the second bananas of Freaks, Antonin Artaud among the ruins of the old Modern Times factory. But in their hearts and bones, they know how irrelevant all that learned metapalaver is in the face of this movie.
The woman has decided what she’s watching wasn’t so much made as painstakingly uncovered: the director assembling a cinema-verité documentary of the unconscious, by living in it the way an anthropologist—or a mystic—might live among a secretive population or a sacred community. More enigmatic, electrifying things happen in the film, all operating under the flashing sign of oddball preordination. She notices how in any given scene you can’t parse the tone—the comic and the horrific, the beautiful and the forsaken, overlap and intermingle in a way she’s never felt before. A femme fatale appears and seduces Henry, but when she’s in bed with him, the bed dissolves into a milky pool; she turns her head and sees the baby, and the stunned expression that crosses her face tells the viewer she isn’t just a stock character in Henry’s story. She has her own movie going on we haven’t seen: Eraserhead is just the tip of that world, one portal out of an infinite number of possible permutations.
When she leaves the theater, the woman expects the sun will be coming up. Impossible, it’s only two in the morning. Lost all sense of time in there. Feels shaken and exhilarated, a different person. Puts a tape in the deck: Los Angeles, “The World’s a Mess; It’s In My Kiss.” Knows she’ll be coming back to see whatever this was again, already nervous with anticipation and happier than a film has any right to make her.
Eraserhead (1977) is now available on Blu-Ray from Criterion. The new edition features numerous interviews and special features, including David Lynch’s “Long Live Eraserhead” trailer, his personal thank-you to the Nuart Theater and its patrons in Los Angeles, where the film ran every Friday at midnight for four years.
Peter Strickland, The Duke of Burgundy, 2014, color, sound, 101 minutes.
FAREWELL TO LANGUAGE reconfirmed both acolytes and apostates in their opinions of Jean-Luc Godard, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix was the scene of the big critical tug-of-war, and Tusk found Kevin Smith making movies among the Canadians—by and large a polite, pacific people who have done nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it can be said, was largely a matter of known quantities.
If this TIFF was lacking in unexpected revelations from heretofore unknown filmmakers, there were big showings by directors who aren’t household names with most moviegoers. Timbuktu, the fourth feature film by Mauritania’s Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako), takes place in the titular Malian city during its occupation by a militant Islamic group on jihad. The populace of the city, as it happens, are almost entirely observant Muslims, so the invaders need to go out of their way to invent new interdictions to impose, so to justify their existence. The superfluity of their zeal is the source of an absurd humor at first, but this very subtly shades into outright horror after one of the film’s handful of knockout scenes—a field of men and boys playing soccer with an imaginary ball because sports have been forbidden. Sissako, who frequently has recourse to step back to philosophical, picturesque remove, doesn’t let his outrage shake his grip on the material, and so has no need to stack the deck—focusing on the trial of a man actually guilty of a grave offense, the quietly anguished Timbuktu shows how the criminalization of life itself obscures any sense of let-the-punishment-fit-the-crime proportion.
Less a resounding statement than a lateral move was the English director Peter Strickland’s follow-up to his 2012 Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy. Berberian was a movie that snuck up on people, the introduction of an eccentric and obsessive sensibility. Burgundy confirms that Strickland is possessed of a singular, fetish-driven directorial personality, while highlighting some troubling tendencies that that first burst of originality might have concealed. The film begins as a doe-eyed housecleaner (Chiara D’Anna) is bossed about by her employer, a lepidopterist some years her senior (Sidse Babett Knudsen), before being “punished” behind closed doors. Rather than the Tinto Brass/1970s Eurosleaze pastiche we’re set up for, Burgundy develops into a melancholy comedy about aging, which gets its laughs by domesticating s/m ritual—the “housecleaner” and her “employer” are in fact in a long-term consensual, cohabiting relationship, with all of the difficulties that implies. As in Berberian, Strickland loves using offscreen space and leaving matters to the viewer’s imagination, though here the restraint seems overcautious and even prudish, and when he finally dissolves Burgundy into a dither of effects, he doesn’t have Berberian’s film-within-a-film conceit to justify the unraveling.
Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja contains its own big narrative vault—one that left me behind on the opposite shore—but for most of its running time the film is a compelling study in foreground and background tension and the weight of open spaces, shot in the 1.33:1 Academy ratio with an antique, round-cornered frame. In nineteenth-century Argentina, a Danish military engineer (Viggo Mortensen) sets off across the Patagonian plains in pursuit of his daughter (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who has run off with a low-ranking soldier. With his military mustaches and cavalry regalia, Mortensen invites comparison to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1957), but in Alonso’s film the avenging conquistador is gradually whittled down to size by the landscape and its native inhabitants. The film’s spell is broken, however, when it jettisons its Story So Far around the time that Mortensen’s lost and defeated patriarch wanders into a vaginal cave, signaling a leap into the unknown which feels more literal-minded than the “straight” narrative that preceded it.
Quite the opposite number of either Burgundy or Jauja’s stretch-fades is the case of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, a film whose opening—I think deliberately disorienting—gives the viewer very little to get a handle on, but which in the course of two hours arrives somewhere that is quite moving. A pop epic which flits through eras like a crate-digger’s fingers, Eden follows a clique of characters from 1992, when they are teenagers getting into the rave scene, to 2013, when they are in their middle-to-late thirties. At first it’s hard to even discern who the film’s intended protagonist is, in part because actors Félix de Givry and Roman Kolinka, playing friends Paul and Cyril, bear a close physical resemblance to each other. Eventually Paul, who forms a garage house duo and starts organizing parties, emerges as something like a main character, and the film follows him through two decades of matching beats, from party to party, city to city, girl to girl, line of coke to line of coke, each section separated by vast elliptical gulfs in which nothing much seems to change except the amount of Paul’s personal debt. I don’t believe Paul ever appears alone until the film’s somber and sober final shot, and when he does, the volume of this aloneness is deafening.
It’s difficult to discuss Eden without also mentioning The Clouds of Sils Maria, so why even try? The latter was directed by Hansen-Løve’s husband, Olivier Assayas; each offered input into the other’s work throughout their gestation, and in their respective movies they even use a similar, quizzical “chaptered” structure. All the world’s a rehearsal in Sils Maria, a film whose characters scrutinize motivations from every possible angle—Juliette Binoche is an international star returning to the play that established her twenty years earlier, now as the older half of the central same-sex May-December affair; Kristen Stewart is her personal assistant, with whom she reads lines and rakes through the subtext of the piece. Sils Maria demands the same level of scrutiny the women give to the play—the film should be seen once just to sop up the ideas, again to hang onto the moment-to-moment give-and-go of the alert central performances.
Will K-Stew scent Academy gold for her bold perf? No thinking human being should give this matter a moment’s thought, but Toronto is where the “Oscar buzz,” which will build to a deafening din over months to come, begins. What this means, from a practical standpoint, is that one gets the first crack at seeing some truly awful films there. 99 Homes, for example, offers further proof that writer-director Ramin Bahrani is our foremost practitioner of Neorealist camp. For his tale of an evicted Orlando-area construction worker (Andrew Garfield) who becomes the right-hand man of the suit who tossed him out of his house (Michael Shannon), Bahrani borrows the basic narrative outline of Wall Street, with just a soupçon of Gangs of New York. In the Gordon Gekko/Bill the Butcher role, Shannon is given full clearance to make the scenery into his own personal buffet, with predictably enjoyable results. But can’t just one of these movies end with the essentially decent guy who’s been tempted by the spoils of corruption failing entirely to recapture his soul? Or maybe we could get a movie about how we’re all not connected, instead of another we’re-all-striving-travelers-on-this-crazy-blue-green-ball ensemble piece like Jason Reitman’s toxic Men, Women, and Children?
By a significant margin, the best US movie that I saw north of the forty-ninth parallel was Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What. Arielle Holmes, who was a homeless teenager with a heroin habit when she was “discovered” by Josh on a subway platform, stars as a version of her not-much-younger self in the anecdotal film, adapted from her own unpublished memoir Mad Love in New York City. Holmes’s Harley knocks about between connections and consorts, while always returning to the worst one (Caleb Landry Jones, an orc with a translucent complexion). Shot in the grottier precincts of the Upper West Side, the film captures the purifying effulgence of the city’s winter light, assuming a perspective that veers between flurried intimacy and a passersby POV. At various points it put me in mind of the surreptitiously filmed scene where Laurie Bird hits up strangers for change in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), or some of the more punishing works of Tobe Hooper—the aggro electro score of Eaten Alive (1977) or Marilyn Burns on the side of the road at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Heaven knows who the intended audience is for this urgent, abrasive film, which sets its sights on highly dysfunctional human beings inflicting punishment on themselves and anyone who’ll put up with them, but here’s hoping they find it.
The Toronto International Film Festival ran September 4–14.
JACQUES NOLOT NEVER FORGOT how Roland Barthes introduced him to André Téchiné: “Je vais te montrer une roulure” [“I’ll show you a slut”]. A young and come-hither mec on the make, Nolot would only later become known as a writer or a filmmaker, or even the suave figure in films by François Ozon, among others. He commented, decades later, on the not precisely meet-cute in a bar with Téchiné, the director he would end up working with more than any other, both as an actor and screenwriter, and on Barthes’s exactitude: “That was true in a mythological sense: he who has no stable place.” When Pierre, the aging hustler and writer played by Nolot in his own bracing, cinematic autofiction, Avant Que J’oublie [Before I Forget, 2007], tells a similar story to the dizzying number sitting across from him, he puts it this way: “He [Barthes] said I was a whore. In the semantic sense. With no attachments, no place, no roots. I was just that, a whore.” What’s attractive at twenty or twenty-five or twenty-nine is a bit trickier when one is sixty, and yet, in his film, Nolot, almost actuarially, accounts for it all.
While someone could map a lineage for Nolot’s spare, enthralling work—starting with Proust’s Sodom et Gomorrhe (1921–22), cruising along to Renaud Camus’s Tricks (1981) and then to Guillaume Dustan’s Dans Ma Chambre (1996), at some point reconfiguring Genet’s 1948 Pompes funèbres with, to put it somewhat bluntly, AIDS taking on the role of the Nazis—to do so would miss entirely the images of solitariness, contemplation, and their silence of which Nolot is a master: Pierre’s insomniac tossing and turning; quietly making early morning coffee; concentrating, with a cigarette, at his desk, or padding barefoot around it, not quite at the point of writing; matter-of-factly considering suicide by leaning out his apartment window; having dinner by himself in front of the television, news of Gaza exploding on TV the only noise. Two sounds dominate the action: talk among lovers, former lovers, friends, former rivals—almost all of them in the same line of work—and the soft rustle of cash. We observe Pierre paying his regular trick, Marc, after a particularly rough fuck at home; paying the new grocery delivery boy, both for groceries and for the blow job Pierre delivers to him; paying his analyst. Life insurance policies have never been itemized with so many riders of erotic drift. Everything and everyone has a price, which isn’t to state that there aren’t also pleasures, memories, encounters that escape the grind of monetization. The films ends with Pierre dolled up in convincing drag, at Marc’s request or dare, to go out to porn theater and then maybe a club.
No film, no filmmaker, has shown so directly the tolls of “managing” life with HIV for twenty-four years, which is to say: There’s plenty of sex, but we also witness Pierre head off on his way to cruise, only to be stopped in his quest by shitting himself. Watching debonair Nolot strip away any deflective devices and bare all is thrilling as it is moving; such a calm, difficult poetics of self-exposure proves the often vying selfieness on Scruff or Instagram feeble and concealing. Only George Kuchar, usually in a droll or bittersweet mode (e.g. Weather Diary #3), has equaled what Nolot presents, a single man, middle-aged and aging, point-blank, naked, actually and existentially. Mature themes, kids, not simply comic or tragic, but coming soon, right atcha. And for those who assume, now that Truvada’s arrived, there won’t be any more bumpy nights or some, um, really super special surprises, well, have fun with that.
To close the magisterial survey at Lincoln Center, “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?”, our filth elder, the important trouble born of an unforgettable, midnight ménage among P.T. Barnum, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Robert Bresson, has chosen to spotlight Before I Forget, a film he’s “jealous [he] didn’t make.” When I asked Waters, the greatest cross-platform multitasker (director-writer-artist-showman–style icon–public intellectual–OG) this country has ever produced, if he would provide some fresh details of his love of all things Nolot, he responded:
When I first got to meet Jacques Nolot at a film festival in Switzerland a few years back, I was as giddy as a teenage girl meeting Justin Bieber. Here was one of my idols. Mr. Nolot was exactly as I expected: wearily handsome, funny, smart, and a fan of many of the same types of movies as I am. He didn’t feel that comfortable speaking in English and I couldn’t say a word in French but that didn’t stop us from asking the translator to do his best at deciphering different dirty terms for obscure sex acts we wanted to trade culturally. Jacques and I got on like a house on fire that others have unsuccessfully tried to extinguish. I can take more of Jacques Nolot than I can of myself!
The third of a trilogy that begins with the too rarely seen L’Arrière Pays [Hinterland, 1998] and La chatte à deux têtes [billed as Porn Theater in English, 2002], Nolot’s subtle masterpiece (the only word that will suffice, despite the fact that Before I Forget’s gracefulness thwarts such categorical baggage) shrugs off any belabored truisms about film and identity while testing how “fiction” arrives at “truth” or “relevance.” Nolot once described his process this way: “My writing is a bit schizophrenic. You tell me a story, I appropriate it, I make it my own, I don’t know anymore who is who, who is I, what’s true and what isn’t. I no longer know where reality lies.” There could be no finer cultural attaché than Waters, who knows about probing supposed limits and boundaries, to accomplish détente with whatever has kept Nolot’s work from being better known.
We first see Pierre from the back, standing in front of a double gravestone, close to a much older man, Bruno. Toutoune, who was once a whore as well as Pierre’s mentor-lover-father-brother-friend, and, yes, “bank,” is returned to youth by a letter written long ago that Pierre reads aloud at his desk. An aubade of autumnal, even ominous visions, Before I Forget reckons with the costs of living, desperate and otherwise, but it’s alive with rakish daring, reminding anyone who ever thought otherwise to never underestimate the tricks a trick has up his sleeve. No queen worth the name is about to go gently into that Cineplex night.
Before I Forget screens on Sunday, September 14 at 1:45 PM as part of the John Waters retrospective at Film Society of Lincoln Center, in a Waters-curated sidebar titled “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make.”