À La Mode

Leo Goldsmith on the 2018 Festival International de Cinéma de Marseille

Albert Serra, Roi Soleil, 2018, HD, Dolby Digital, color, sound, 61 minutes.

EVEN AMID ALL THE FAKE-NEWS FLAPPERY ONLINE, documentary form has seldom been as robust as it is today. Nonfiction film festivals are stretching the already blurred boundaries drawn up by the documentary tradition, and art spaces are increasingly embracing nonfiction media, especially in moving-image form—of which the New Museum’s John Akomfrah exhibition is just the most recent example. One crucial locus for this convergence of documentary cinema, experimental media, and contemporary art is FIDMarseille, an international film festival now in its twenty-ninth year that has long cultured these relationships. And quite actively, too: Under the aegis of the FIDLab, the festival has, for ten years, provided a forum for filmmakers and artists to pitch works in progress that often fall between or beyond more traditional (and traditionally fundable) media categories.

This year’s edition continued this trajectory with its characteristically adventurous international and French competitions, along with sidebars devoted to Isabelle Huppert, cinematic portraiture, and the collaborations between Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol. The international competition—which, true to form, featured nearly all world premieres—included works of a variety of genres and lengths. The shortest: Khaled Abdulwahed’s twenty-six-minute work Backyard, in which the artist used scanning, rephotography, drawing, and 3-D printing to painstakingly reconstruct a photograph of a Syrian cactus field in 1998, a landscape subsequently lost to the civil war. The longest: Lee Kang-Hyun’s 133-minute narrative feature Possible Faces, which intricately braids together several storylines that gently and mysteriously render the dark undercurrents of the quotidian lives of a young restauranteur, her sad-sack high-school administrator ex-boyfriend, and the young student soccer player he becomes obsessed with. That these two films share the same competition is a mark of the festival’s diversity and idiosyncrasy.

A product of the festival’s FIDLab, and the international competition’s grand prix winner—a clear standout—was Spanish artist Dora García’s assured and elusive feature Segunda vez. With the Argentine author, artist, and psychoanalyst Oscar Masotta as its center of gravity, the film weaves between various texts, lectures, performance works, and archival objects, including two Happenings (“Para inducir el espíritu de la imagen” and “El helicóptero”) and an “anti-Happening” (“El mensaje fantasma”), all from 1966, as well as—in its final act—a dramatization of Julio Cortázar’s text Segunda vez, a Kafkaesque allegory of menacing bureaucratic control during the Argentine Dirty War. Through elliptical, recursive editing patterns, García collates an extraordinary range of media, excursive material, and subjects in Masotta’s orbit—Peronism, Lacan, the dematerialization of the art object—but nevertheless retains a rigor and focus that refuses to foreclose its seductively tentacular strands and interconnections.

Dora Garcia, Segunda Vez, 2018, HD, Dolby Digital, color, sound, 94 minutes.

Sharing the international competition grand prix, in what has to be the world’s weirdest tie, was Albert Serra’s Roi soleil, a video work that documents a performance-installation staged at Lisbon’s Galeria Graça Brandão in January 2017, which in turn reworks the Catalan filmmaker’s 2016 film The Death of Louis XIV. In the role of the frill-festooned and periwigged Sun King, and in lieu of Jean-Pierre Léaud, Serra cast an actor (or, rather, a nonactor) of a very different shape: his frequent collaborator Lluís Serrat Masanellas, who also played the Sancho Panza character in Serra’s Quixote film, Quixotic/Honor de Cavalleria (2006). In Roi soleil, Louis XIV does even less than his cinematic counterpart, spending the sixty-one-minute runtime lying on the floor, wheezing, coughing, gorging (and occasionally choking) on sweets, and grotesquely slurping water from a crystal decanter via rubber medical tubing. That all of this takes place, at comically excruciating length, in the space of a white cube that Serra has turned a retina-singeing vermillion suggests a subtly subversive note, with a bloated, dying monarch for the art world to match the one that Serra has already delivered to the cinema. But to reimport the performance back to the context of the cinema via a mid-length film makes somewhat less sense, and the result, funny as it is, comes off as a bit lazy. To be sure, the film opens itself to a “had anyone else made it . . .” criticism, but then again no one else would—and that’s why it won the award.

Meanwhile, in the festival’s French competition, Eric Baudelaire’s deceptively simple new work, Walked the way home, presents a series of camera-phone images—all shot in the soupiest of slow-motion and framed in his phone’s upright portrait mode—of small cadres of French troops, cops, and gendarmes as they patrol urban spaces in Paris and beyond. What seems to have begun as a small gesture of protest on Baudelaire’s Instagram feed, here—and with the help of Claire Atherton, his editor and a frequent collaborator of Chantal Akerman—becomes a rich and disorienting cinematic experience. The intensity of the phone’s gaze and the work’s dreamlike pace force one to consider the normalization within public space of these soldiers, their thuggish presence, dead-eyed and baby-faced, with assault rifles cradled casually in their arms. But the film also emphatically offers the space to reflect on the nature of Baudelaire’s gesture of filming these groups in handheld, drive-by shots—on the one hand, there is the power of sousveillance, of looking back at authority; on the other, as made clear by images of tourists taking selfies against the Paris skyline, there is the sense of our mutual implication in a tightly networked system of control administered via the mediated gaze of the smartphone.

Hybridity and variation take on slightly different meanings in Christiane Geoffroy’s Climatic Species––another French competition contender––a film about evolutionary biology that entirely eschews the Disneyfied anthropomorphism and HD nature porn of the modern science documentary. Instead, Geoffroy’s hushed and elegantly paced film addresses both the immediate, material present and the vastness of evolutionary time scales through a minimalist and intimate mode of address and an interspecies cast of characters that includes a cuttlefish, a cedar, a couple of human scientists, and a charismatic polar- and grizzly-bear hybrid that is the product of catastrophic climate shifts in the bears’ habitats. In turn, Geoffroy is able to capture processes of mutation and adaptation that are matched perfectly by a hybrid cinematic form that is itself always in motion.

The 2018 Festival International de Cinéma de Marseille ran from July 10 to July 16.