Andrzej Zulawski, Possession, 1981, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Left: Mark (Sam Neill). Right: Anna (Isabelle Adjani).

DESERVEDLY NOTORIOUS, and now revived uncut by Film Forum, Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession plunges into a vertiginous free fall of amour fou, lust, hysteria, and unnameable, uncontainable passion. A perfect match to the destabilizing urges under fresh study in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, this is mania without analysis: Consumed by someone somewhere else, young mother Anna (Isabelle Adjani) effectively abandons her husband Mark (Sam Neill) and their boy. Guilty of his own absences, Mark enters a frenzy of desperation and jealousy. He eventually tracks down Anna’s ludicrous lover Heinrich (the late Heinz Bennent), but the finding reveals little about the mutant extravagance behind Anna’s unexplained disappearances, outbursts, and distrait silences.

Zulawski stages his expressionistic danse macabre in a bleak West Berlin, shooting the couple’s apartment complex and the underpopulated streets with the exhausted, bright lucidity of an insomniac’s gaze. But the setting would be nothing without Adjani, embodying an emotional wraith, eyes shifting from melancholy to tantalizing secretiveness to cold fire. Her inscrutability at first appears conventional; early in the film she greets Mark sullenly after his return from a mysterious business trip. But as her husband digs in, the outbursts grow wilder; every kitchen implement seems a deadly weapon. Neill, apparently directed to deliver lines as if stream-of-consciousness, holds nothing back; we in turn become absorbed in their careening among rooms, or in a simple, repeated gesture, like Adjani’s madly fluttering hands.

Possession’s oft-hyped special effects—menstruating walls and a phallic creature in Anna’s secret second apartment—care of Carlo Rambaldi, are only the most overtly surreal embellishment to a movie that’s already bent by DP Bruno Nuytten’s wide angles and nervous circling camera. (In another surreal touch, Adjani does double duty as Anna’s green-eyed doppelgänger, a milk-fresh schoolteacher who catches Mark’s eye.) The is-this-for-real factor of its excesses sees descendants in the likes of Werner Schroeter’s 1991 Malina (starring Isabelle Huppert in a perpetually flaming flat), though the influence of Possession’s tweaking of art/suspense/horror/melodrama sometimes seems overshadowed by Cronenberg.

While it’s hard to describe Zulawski’s experiment as pleasurable, its follies are surely familiar to lovelorn viewers. Fascinating and off-putting, the film ends with perhaps the only possible denouement to a romantic apocalypse; finally, the filmmaker’s orchestration of chaos feels like the natural order of things.

Nicolas Rapold

Possession runs December 2–13 at Film Forum in New York.

Cyril Tuschi, Khodorkovsky, 2011, still from a color film, 111 minutes.

SOMEWHERE NEAR THE END of Cyril Tuschi’s engrossing documentary about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the quintessential oligarch of the “new” Russia and at one point “the richest man in the world under forty,” Khodorkovsky’s onetime financial adviser Christian Michel wonders if his client acquiesced in his own arrest in 2003 to expiate the “sin” of being wealthy—a necessary sacrifice for one with possible political ambitions. Michel thinks Khodorkovsky quite capable of such a gambit. Whether this Dostoyevskian theme suits the temperament of this fascinating, enigmatic figure, the course of his life and the turn in its “plot”—when he displayed a concern for ethics at the peak of his success—might have appealed to the author of Demons, who had himself been imprisoned in Siberia where Khodorkovsky currently serves an extended sentence. The question hangs over Khodorkovsky, a provocative portrait of the man and a study of Russian business and politics during the transition from communism to capitalism. More than one person intuits that Khodorkovsky’s superior intelligence was an affront and a threat to Putin, and that confronting Putin with the question of corruption at an official, televised meeting attended by Russia’s richest businessmen was the last straw, leading to his being singled out for punishment for tax evasion.

Khodorkovsky, in a letter to the filmmaker, speculates on the theories: Maybe Putin feared he would sell a majority of his vastly successful oil company Yukos to an American company? Or that he had ambitions to be president? No, he says, it was probably because he supported the political opposition in 2003, after Putin had warned all businessmen to stay out of politics. Most figures interviewed in the film—former business partners, journalists, politicians, and heads of state—whatever else they think, share the view that Putin and politics were behind his trial and incarceration.

Tuschi’s film deftly interweaves interviews, newsreel footage, and a clever, computer-animated motif that runs throughout. The main line is Khodorkovsky’s rise from humble beginnings to capitalist extraordinaire: how he determined to rival Western tycoons while, Michel recalls, he didn’t know what a checkbook was; how his initial ventures were facilitated by the free market period of perestroika; how he founded the first private bank in the country thanks to privileged support from the government that viewed him as “a beacon of hope” for a new, prosperous Russia; and, finally, how he made a deal with Boris Yeltsin to purchase the oil company Yukos for three hundred million dollars when it was valued at six billion. Yeltsin did it to keep the company from foreign powers, Khodorkovsky became the richest man in the country, and Yukos Russia’s biggest taxpayer.

Yet the film hints at another Khodorkovsky, not far from the idealistic student of the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League), the one who modeled himself after a socialist hero fighting for people’s liberation and immortalized in the novel Pavel Korchagin, with whom Khodorkovsky still identifies. This man named his bank Menatep—an abbreviation for “Center for Scientific and Technical Creativity of Youth”—and made an unpredictable turnaround at the millennium, at the height of his success, by organizing “Open Russia,” through which he invested one hundred million dollars in universities, boarding schools, and training programs for youth. This is the man who allegedly despised the term oligarch and did not drive Ferraris or dress in Armani suits; the same one who confronted Putin in public by asserting that “since we [the wealthiest businessmen] started the corruption process, we should end it.” Was it this Khodorkovsky who dismissed his adviser’s warnings that the deal with Yeltsin would have a cancerous effect on business and government, by saying that he welcomed the fall of the old system that would make way for a new?

The glimpses we get of Khodorkovsky, including behind glass in prison, confirm the impressions he generated: intense, soulful, both impassioned and serene, a subtly suppressed hubris with a possible martyr complex. On his visit to New York, aware that his offices had been searched and his arrest was imminent, he dismissed pleas from his son Pavel and others, and returned to place his head in the wolf’s mouth. Later, in prison, he says it was to speak his own truth in court. As campaigns by liberals and human rights activists (and, early on, George Bush) questioned his sentence, Putin insisted that the original charge of tax evasion was compounded by new ones of murder. Disputing evidence for one of these charges seems to have disappeared when the man in custody of it was poisoned suspiciously. Dostoyevsky? The tale more closely resembles the sinister Boyar conspiracies against the Czar in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

At the film’s beginning, the director asks some young people curious about his presence in Siberia if they ever heard of Khodorkovsky. A young woman shakes her head negatively, but her male companion says, “Yes, I know who he is. He stole a lot of money from Russia.” The film suggests that as new billionaires continue to emerge in Russia, Khodorkovsky may be forgotten, or remembered only as a thief. Indeed, at the end, as the slowly unmasked image of the Siberian landscape outside the prison with which this gorgeously photographed film begins returns in reverse, shrinking the vast, wide-screen vista to a slim letterbox strip, the sense of oblivion strikes an ominous note. Earlier, the ever-optimistic Khodorkovsky told those who fear that he will seek revenge when he is released “not to worry. I am not the Count of Monte Cristo.” Maybe so, but as the camera scans the handsome face and calm, resolute demeanor of this man behind bars, one cannot help but wonder which persona will emerge unchained.

Tony Pipolo

Khodorkovsky opens Wednesday, November 30, at Film Forum in New York.

Real Genius


Left: Gonçalo Tocha, It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, 2011, still from a color film, 183 minutes. Right: Ruben Östlund, Play, 2011, color film, 118 minutes. Production still.

ONE ONTOLOGICAL QUESTION comes up with surprising regularity at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival: What is a documentary? An apt rejoinder at this ambitious, admirably open-minded event might be: What isn’t? On the one hand, the programming at CPH:DOX, which ventures far beyond what many would consider documentary, is a response to the state of the art and the industry: It reflects the continuing rise of the so-called hybrid film and represents a provocative attempt to shake up a sector of the film world where matters of aesthetics are often actively ignored. On the other hand, it’s a return to first principles, a reminder of the attraction to the real that has been hard-wired into the medium from the very beginning. The earliest documentarians, like Robert Flaherty or Dziga Vertov, were in many ways also the form’s greatest innovators, and at its best, a festival like CPH:DOX reaffirms the long-standing connection between documentary and experimental film.

In keeping with that implicit mission, the top award at this year’s edition, the festival’s ninth, went to the increasingly prolific and distinctive Ben Rivers for his first feature-length film. Two Years at Sea is a gentle evocation—part document, part fantasy—of an off-the-grid, out-of-time existence in the Scottish forest, and a lovingly handmade work in every sense, from its hermit hero’s constructed world to the silvery, processed black-and-white images. (For three straight years now, the main prize has gone to a film that could just as easily be classified as fiction: last year to Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, and in 2009 to Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers.) Other highlights from the competition included Ruben Östlund’s Play, a supremely controlled Michael Haneke–like fiction inspired by actual cases of juvenile delinquency in Göteborg, and the Portuguese director Gonçalo Tocha’s three-hour It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, the most quixotic and generous of ethnographic projects, raptly fascinated with all aspects of daily life on the tiny, remote mid-Atlantic island of Corvo.

Alongside the main competition, a section called New Vision—I served on its jury this year—encompasses disparate experiments from the visual art and film worlds. The works here ranged widely in formats and genres, from installation loop (Omer Fast, with the recent Venice Biennale entry 5,000 Feet Is the Best) to vérité (René Frölke’s Führung, a sly chronicle of German president Horst Köhler’s visit to a Karlsruhe art school), from retro science fiction (Romeo Grünfelder’s The Contingency Principle) to modern-day surrealism (João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues’s visit to a Macao market, Red Dawn). Our prize went to the French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux for It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, a sketch of the Japanese avant-gardist Masao Adachi that approaches a platonic ideal of biographical portraiture, affording the sense of one singular artist in communion with another.

Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea, 2011, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm blown up to 35 mm, 86 minutes.

Amid a packed program that strayed frequently from the screening room—a live YouTube battle, music and multimedia performances (by synth-pop avant-gardist John Maus, among others), a concurrent moving-image exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark titled “Re:Constructed Landscapes”—the most resonant pleasures of the festival could be found in the carte blanche selections of guest curators. Nan Goldin, invited to reinterpret the title of her iconic I’ll Be Your Mirror, put together a superb collection of films—Derek Jarman’s monochrome elegy, Blue; Raymond Depardon’s unflinching portrait of a Venetian psychiatric hospital, San Clemente; an oddly complementary pair of road movies in Barbara Loden’s Wanda and Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos—that reflected myriad ways of seeing and being seen. (Goldin’s slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was accompanied by live music from Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, the subject of Marie Losier’s poignant documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, which also screened here.)

In an intriguing confluence of curation, criticism, and practice, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell (himself a festival regular in recent years for the hallucinatory Trypps series and the neo-Rouchian Let Each One Go Where He May) offered an oblique sneak preview of their upcoming collaboration in the form of an elaborate annotated riff. Titled A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, their jointly directed film will depict the same character in different settings (Arctic isolation, a Scandinavian commune, the black-metal music scene), and for CPH:DOX, the filmmakers assembled multipart programs on the themes of “solitude,” “collectivity,” and “phenomenology.” As their much-anticipated film promises to do, their series revealed common ground between Rivers’s pastoral vision and Russell’s psychedelic one, emphasizing their shared interests in the terror and beauty of the natural world, alternate ways of living and being, and the possibility of transcendence.

It’s hard to think of another festival that could have so seamlessly accommodated the Ben & Ben program, a study in eclecticism and an impeccable display of fringe connoisseurship: cult horror (John Carpenter’s The Thing), cult documentary (Robert Kramer’s Milestones), avant-garde cult items (George Kuchar’s Weather Diary 3), cult oddities (Vladimir Tulkin’s Lord of the Flies, about the eccentric inventor of a gruesome fly-killing contraption). Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of the Brooklyn band Liturgy, black metal’s resident philosopher, delivered a lecture on nihilism and humanism. Midway through one program of shorts, the sisters who front Hare Krishna psychedelic band Prince Rama lit incense, waved wind chimes, and led an improbably energetic session of New Age aerobics. And in another, the print of Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, of all films, actually caught fire, as if through some incantatory magic—a material manifestation of the bubbling lava pools on screen, an altogether fitting intrusion of the real, and of the sublime.

Dennis Lim

The ninth Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival took place November 3–13, 2011.

Bertrand Bonello, House of Pleasures, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 125 minutes.

“I’M SO TIRED I could sleep for a thousand years,” one of the prostitutes of the Apollonide, an upscale Parisian brothel, sighs in the beginning of writer-director Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which traces the final months of the maison at the dawn of the twentieth century. The lamentation immediately establishes the film’s hypnotic mood: languor and sickly decadence, further expressed when another whore announces, “It reeks of sperm and champagne in here.” The initial complaint also calls to mind the refrain from the Velvet Underground’s 1967 song “Venus in Furs,” itself inspired by the 1870 s/m classic by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The VU era is a touchstone for Bonello, who unmoors us from the Belle Epoque by blasting soul rarities during the opening and closing credits and, after one of their own dies of syphilis, having the doxies dance with one another to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.”

Like the clouds of opium smoke that waft through the Apollonide, House of Pleasures has a narcotic effect, unspooling as a hallucination, a dream, and, in one near-unforgivable moment, a ghastly nightmare. Some scenes and lines of dialogue are repeated right after they’ve ended, a time-stuttering effect that liberates this gorgeously photographed (by Josée Deshaies, Bonello’s wife) period piece from the hidebound qualities usually associated with the genre.

Time may open up, but space is constricted. Except for two scenes (and the coda), Bonello’s film takes place entirely within the walls of the bordello, divided between the luxe parlor, where the well-heeled clients discuss the Dreyfus affair and the opening of the Métro while stroking a black panther, and the rooms upstairs, where the “commerce,” as the prostitutes call their work, is transacted. The mise-en-scène may be sumptuous, but Bonello makes no attempts to glorify the profession; the employees of the Apollonide are all too aware of their enslavement. “If I ever get out of here, I’ll never make love again,” Léa (Adele Haenel) says to her coworkers as they await their mandated, humiliating gynecological inspections.

Even the Apollonide’s ledger-obsessed madam, Marie-France (Noémie Lvovsky, also a writer-director, as are Jacques Nolot and Xavier Beauvois, who play two of the bordello’s habitués), does not hesitate to inform a new employee of the subjugation that awaits her. When sixteen-year-old Pauline (Iliana Zabeth, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the central figure in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère) explains to Marie-France that she wishes to pursue the world’s oldest profession “to be independent,” the proprietress scoffs, “Freedom’s outside—not here.”

In its focuses on what happens inside, both spatially and anatomically—“Men never look into the sex of women enough,” one labia minora–loving john attests—House of Pleasures details the downtime and pre-commerce rituals the Apollonide’s workers share. These relaxed scenes of bathing, dressing, sleeping, and eating crucially foreground the loose camaraderie among the cosseted, corseted prisoners. Bonello shows such compassion and respect for his characters that his decision to graphically—and unnecessarily—depict the gruesome disfigurement of Madeleine (Alice Barnole), who recounts to her client a bizarre dream before she is attacked, stings sharply. And yet even this momentary betrayal is ameliorated by Bonello’s outré special effects: Right before the Apollonide’s red light is extinguished for good, Madeleine, just as she did in her reverie, cries tears of cum.

Melissa Anderson

House of Pleasures opens November 25 at the IFC Center in New York.

David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Sabina Spielrein and Carl Jung (Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender).

THE ARC OF DAVID CRONENBERG’S career as a director mirrors that of an idiosyncratic underground band that slowly finds mainstream acceptance, its skills improving as its aesthetics plane out to inoffensive craftsmanship. Formerly a true innovator in the disreputable genres of horror and science fiction, the Canadian filmmaker was for a quarter century perhaps the greatest living example of the auteur theory, his films exploring extreme physical and psychological mutation with the single-mindedness of an obsessive still-life painter, examining and reexamining the same source material from every possible angle. Some called his early style “venereal horror,” a subgenre made even more unusual by the fact that Cronenberg took the point of view of—and wanted his audience to sympathize with—the disease. Among directors who have managed to sell some popcorn, there are few, if any, whose filmographies can match the consistently twisted subjectivity on display in Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), and Naked Lunch (1991).

Clearing his throat with M. Butterfly (1993), but truly starting with Spider (2002), Cronenberg left the twitching viscera behind and focused on more “mature” subjects; themes of psychological transformation and/or delusion were still present, but the films seemed designed for positive reviews in the New Yorker instead of Fangoria. He’d been celebrated for his auteurist movies by postmodern theorists and leather academics for years, and, of course, revered by fans of gore. He had highbrow and lowbrow covered. Since then, he’s been attempting to furrow the middlebrow. Not coincidentally, he also stopped writing his own screenplays.

What has been gained? For one, a Scorsese/De Niro–like symbiosis with actor Viggo Mortensen, who has starred in his last three films. For another, a subtler, more classical mise-en-scène. Always a competent technician with a strong visual sensibility, Cronenberg has developed a cool, almost clinical approach to composition, not unlike that of fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan. He can also deliver masterfully choreographed, human-based action sequences, as in the thwarted robbery scene that begins A History of Violence (2005) and the naked shower-room knife fight in Eastern Promises (2007). And he continues to wink at his more radical past with bits of “shocking” business—Ed Harris’s obscenely wandering eye in Violence; the barbershop throat slitting and brothel carousing in Promises.

In A Dangerous Method, his latest film, that bit of business is the ritualized spanking of Keira Knightley, delivered by an actor (Michael Fassbender) playing the young psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Based on the 2002 play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton (who also cowrote the screenplay), Method follows the true story of the complicated intellectual-emotional triangle of Jung; his patient, lover, and student Sabina Spielrein (Knightley); and his mentor and colleague Sigmund Freud (Mortensen in a very convincing prosthetic nose). Spielrein was admitted to the Zurich clinic where Jung worked, a hysteric fixated on (and aroused by) humiliation, a psychological echo of her father’s verbal abuse and beatings. As Jung “cures” her, he notices her intelligence and aptitude for psychoanalytic work, and starts using her as an assistant, eventually sponsoring her own graduate work in the field.

David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

In the meantime, he begins a mad love affair with his beautiful charge, spanking and deflowering her after an earnest debate about psychoanalytic theory. A straight-laced, personally conservative married man at the outset (despite an interest in mysticism and the supernatural), Jung succumbs to Spielrein’s charms after Freud sends him one of his own patients to mind: the louche, womanizing, drug-addicted psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who counsels Jung to “never repress anything.” Meanwhile, Jung and Freud correspond, meet, travel to conferences together, and generally invent and defend the discipline of psychoanalysis, the “dangerous method” of the title. Freud admonishes Jung to stop calling it “psychanalysis” because “ ‘psychoanalysis’ sounds better.”

As written by Hampton and portrayed by Mortensen, Freud is an anxious father figure, perennially worried about personal finances and the reputation of his fledgling field. He eventually breaks with Jung, his favored “son,” because the latter’s desire to study telepathy, ancient mythology, and UFOs might delegitimize psychoanalysis as a new type of science. Spielrein serves as a muse to both men, suggesting the seed idea for the animus/anima concept to Jung and the sex/death drive connection to Freud. These exchanges, radically condensed as they are for dramatic purposes, can be unintentionally comedic. You can almost see the proverbial lightbulb over Jung’s head turn on as Spielrein innocently says, “Don’t you think there’s a bit of woman in every man and man in every woman?”

And that’s the problem with A Dangerous Method: The historical material is inherently fascinating, but the screenplay is so full of shorthand that it threatens to trivialize both the characters and their ideas. It’s momentarily amusing to watch Freud stare quizzically at his cigar, but the joke is cheap in a Where’s Waldo?/spot-the-allusion kind of way. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar. Cronenberg’s direction is supremely tasteful and controlled, but almost airless. Even the spankings seem studied. From a man who once trafficked in truly dangerous methods—“gynecological tools for operating on mutant women,” say—this is hard to accept.

Andrew Hultkrans

A Dangerous Method opens November 23.

Ming Wong, Persona Performa, 2011. Performance views, Museum of the Moving Image, New York, November 10, 2011. Photos: Paula Court.

EVEN PEOPLE who have never seen a frame of The Seventh Seal (1957) know that Ingmar Bergman is a humorless Swede obsessed with sex and death. It’s a reductive caricature, of course, but sometimes such popular shorthand can be a generative artistic device. This seems to be what Ming Wong was angling for with Persona Performa, his live dance/theater/film work inspired by Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece, Persona. Each element of Wong’s expansive project, developed and presented at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of New York’s ongoing Performa 11 biennial, riffed on received notions of the director and the film, occasionally building on Bergman’s ideas but more often merely pantomiming them.

During a multimedia preamble to the show’s live action, a wall of windows in the museum’s lobby became a screen upon which were projected beach scenes from Faro Island (the setting for Persona, and the director’s beloved home). In an upstairs gallery, a rotating gallery of faces were overlaid to become one mutating visage, mimicking the film’s iconic split-screen head shot of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, the vintage black-and-white film stock cycling through a gloriously noisy EIKI projector. The performance portions of the evening built on the film’s dialogic binaries and theme of interchangeability. Twenty-four performers (the number corresponds to the standard frames per second in 35-mm film) of different races, genders, and sizes—each outfitted in matching Ullmann-esque blonde wigs and slips with one side black fabric and the other white—paraded down the museum’s staircase and past spectators before disappearing and then reappearing back atop the stairs, like a looped film reel. Each pass offered a different take on the film’s central psychological break.

The audience was then ushered inside the museum’s main theater. The stage became a film set, with two video cameras on tracks gliding past performers, who had all been coupled off; they mimed select moments from Persona, which were projected onto the screen above them. Despite Wong’s overdependence on racial and gender reorientations for dramatic frisson—didn’t Bergman’s ode to isolation and identification already have universal appeal?—and embarrassing stunt casting of a local teen as narrator Ingmar, the work finally took flight in the finale. Pairs of dancers, imprisoned together in single slips, suggested different ways for bodies and personas to blur. It almost made me forget Wong’s laughable inclusion of Death himself as a goofy specter, drifting in from The Seventh Seal as shorthand of the shallowest kind.

Eric Hynes