Fresh Start


Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, Palácios de pena (Palaces of Pity), 2011, still from a color film, 59 minutes.

“FIRST LOOK,” an opportunity to see new films that lack or may never have distribution, is a mixed bag. On the adventurous, if surreal, side, there is Palácios de pena (Palaces of Pity), a Portuguese tidbit codirected by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, any summary of which is bound to impose more coherence than I suspect the filmmakers intended. A group of precocious adolescent female cousins cavort about, first in a huge sports stadium where their only audience is a grandmother in a wheelchair. The omniscient aspect of this figure is confirmed by a dream she has in which she is a judge in a medieval trial of two gay adolescent Muslim boys who are burned at the stake for avowing their love. Though far less explicit, an analogy of sorts is glimpsed in the relationship between the two female cousins, prompted by a “naughty” exchange that seems to turn them on. This occurs at the moment that one has finished lining with gasoline the palatial staircase that the other has just inherited from their grandmother. As she smiles at her cousin with a newfound rapport, she blithely tosses a match over her shoulder, igniting a conflagration that somehow both girls survive.

On the same program as this work is an affecting video documentary portrait of Japanese filmmaker Masao Adachi. Once a screenwriter for directors Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima before making his own revolutionary films, Adachi joined the militant Japanese Red Army in the early 1970s, then lived in exile for thirty years. Now in Japan, he is interviewed by Philippe Grandrieux and photographed in that director’s’ characteristically dusky, low-key visual style. The portrait begins with tenebrous images of Adachi pushing what may be his granddaughter on a swing that contrast with glaringly overlit shots of him amid nighttime Tokyo, as the earnestness and solitary nature of the man come through in a grave but mellow voice-over.

Grandrieux’s title, It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, alludes to a sentiment voiced by Adachi as he reflects on his past actions, desires, and regrets, and his commitment to a cause that failed—wondering if, in fact, change is only possible and survival only bearable through the cultivation of beauty, of art and living. Grandrieux intersperses excerpts from Adachi’s films—including The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971)—which are faded beyond recognition, as if reduced to serving as objective correlatives to the man’s present state. Adachi speaks of his desire to make a movie about the changes in Japan over the past fifty years, in order to show that there haven’t been any.

Chantal Akerman, Almayer’s Folly, 2011, still from a color film, 127 minutes.

Another highlight of the series is Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly, based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel of the same title. Like much of Conrad, it dramatizes the cultural tensions aroused by Western colonizers exploiting the natural resources of the East. Set in Malaysia, the narrative focuses on the title character’s failure at the business ventures that drove him there and the price he pays for his folly: the loss of his half-Malaysian daughter Nina, to the world from which he hoped to save her with Western education. When she returns to Malaysia and takes up with Dain, a dangerous native lover, Almayer’s only reason for living dissolves. The narrative is a flashback from the opening scene, itself an uncanny fusion of cultures, in which Dain mimes the voice of Dean Martin in a nightclub, surrounded by dancing native girls, as an ominous figure—Almayer’s loyal servant—slowly approaches the stage and stabs him to death.

Made on location, the film is drenched in atmosphere—the torpor of colonial jungle life with its oppressively hot days and sultry, sleepless nights at least as palpable as in Apocalypse Now (1979), and recalling Carol Reed’s adaptation of Conrad’s Outcast of the Islands (1952). Akerman’s eye for gifted cinematographers is once again evident here with Raymond Fromont, a veteran of documentaries. Shots of the jungle drip with humidity; those of the river that abuts it exude a sickly white from the punishing sun. The effect is preternatural, even if the tale and the telling lack sufficient weight. How Almayer lost the only thing that mattered to him is only barely conveyed, so that the final, nearly ten-minute-long take of his forlorn face is less stirring than it might have been. But then no one, perhaps not even Akerman, could match the final long take in her memorable Jeanne Dielman . . . (1974). Still, this is a must for any serious cineast.

Among the disappointments is Philippe Garrel’s Un été brűlant (literally A Scorching Summer, as translated on screen), which, though it chronicles the end of a marriage and the suicide of an artist, is so blandly constructed and acted as to render its title either unintentionally ironic or misleading. It opens as the protagonist (Louis Garrel) deliberately drives into a tree, a crash that lands him in the hospital and leads to his death. A friend narrates their relationship as a flashback recounts a summer in which the artist and his actress wife (Monica Bellucci) see their love die a slow death. Thanks to the limpness of the writing and directing, little of this is of consequence, and allusions to Godard’s great Contempt don’t help.

Promising titles include Elena, a new film by Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose The Return (2003) was one of the best films from Russia in at least two decades; Valérie Massadian’s Nana, which won Best First Feature at Locarno’s film festival; and Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle.

Tony Pipolo

“First Look,” curated by Dennis Lim, Rachael Rakes, and David Schwartz, runs January 6–15 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.