There is a small but dedicated band of people who take the Melbourne International Film Festival very seriously. These are people whose passion for cinema long ago morphed into a vaguely ritualistic obsession.
They take time off work to do this thing properly, barely flinching at the prospect of four or five films a day, every day, for 18 days. The credits have just started to roll and they’re out of their seats, rushing from Melbourne Central to the Forum, praying that their friend’s friend managed to save them a seat. Preferably four or five rows from the front, on the left hand side.
If you’re not careful, the MIFF lurgy can begin to influence how you respond to movies. Nothing seems to live up to the quality of the stuff you saw on the opening weekend. You begin to question everything.
They are also particularly susceptible to the dreaded MIFF lurgy. Part exhaustion, part genuine winter flu, the MIFF lurgy often descends at the turn of the second week.
Its symptoms can generally be boiled down to over-emotional responses to perceived or non-existent slights. You walked past somebody but they didn’t say hello. Your witty tweet wasn’t chosen for the featured tweets screen. You paid $9.50 for a beer from the festival bar. Anything MIFF-specific can trigger it.
If you’re not careful, the MIFF lurgy can begin to influence how you respond to movies. Nothing seems to live up to the quality of the stuff you saw on the opening weekend. You begin to question everything. Why does MIFF exist? How has this been running for 65 years? Do movies even matter? Why haven’t I cried in anything yet? Am I slowly strangling the one thing that I love?!
Questions that are usually safely confined to that brief period between turning off the bedroom light and falling asleep are instead dragged out and into the cinema. A bit of a mood can descend.
All of which is to say: seeing films made for a film festival at a film festival is not always the best way to watch them.
It is within this context that I wake up at 7am on the festival’s second Saturday. I am trying to be a film critic, and trying to be a film critic in 2016 means having a podcast that actually costs you money to run, and having a podcast that actually costs you money to run means collaborating with other critics whose combined MIFF schedules mean that we’re all free for a small window of opportunity on Saturday morning.
We enter our little recording booth and proceed to verbally vomit in each other’s general direction. By the end of it I feel like I’ve retched the last remnants of my passion for movies.
I spend the rest of the day in a minor fugue state, drifting from movie to bar, to restaurant, to bar, to movie. I almost collapse into my Hoyts seat for a 9pm screening. Now I know how Isabelle Huppert felt when she slouched into an Eames chair in Elle.
It’s a flippant thought really, as it ignores the sizeable emotional arc of her character in order to focus obsessively on one superficial element of one single moment. But then, when you’ve seen so many movies so quickly, moments become all that you have left.
Afterwards, I tell my Cultural Capital co-host Eloise Ross that the interesting thing about Elle is how Huppert’s character never acts in the way that you expect her to.
“Well of course,” she says. “If she did, it wouldn’t be a movie.”
It’s 11.30pm on a Friday night inside a small cinema at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Nearly everybody in the audience for Helmut Berger, Actor appears to be in some sort of altered state. It’s understandable: this was trash cinema king John Waters’ favourite movie of last year. That guarantees a certain kind of audience.
A certain audience for a certain film. This almost unclassifiable documentary is a funny, grotesque and rather tragic look at how stardom and fame play out decades after the cameras stop filming.
Don’t watch this movie if you want your illusions about European cinema shattered, violently and without mercy. And don’t even get me started on the film’s final scene. It’s a shocking, almost feral depiction of a failed seduction, and it was the perfect thing to watch at 1.30am.
Director Andreas Horvath follows the Austrian actor Helmut Berger, something of an icon of 1970s and 80s European cinema. It’s been a while now since his heyday and he lives a hoarder’s life in a cramped apartment.
Horvath combines interviews with Berger’s cleaner and the man himself. And, boy, does he mine some material. Berger leaves long, rambling voicemails for Horvath, alternately berating him for ruining his life with this documentary, and incoherently trying to seduce him.
Berger is a truly idiosyncratic figure, by turns hilarious and tragic, sometimes simultaneously. In one of the film’s saddest scenes, he attends a New Year’s Eve party in Saint Tropez attended by the now geriatric members of last century’s jet-set (including, as Berger proudly exclaims, the world’s wealthiest woman – presumably L’Oreal’s Liliane Bettencourt).
The glamour is almost non-existent, and the brief glimpses we get of this party, including Berger dancing with a balloon, are all a bit sad. The next morning, he gets into a loud fight with Horvath on the street. He spends the rest of his time in Saint Tropez sulking in his motel room; smoking, drinking and watching TV.
Don’t watch this movie unless you want your illusions about European cinema shattered, violently and without mercy. And don’t even get me started on the film’s final scene. It’s a shocking, almost feral depiction of a failed seduction, and it was the perfect thing to watch at 1.30am.
The most intriguing film of the festival for me was The Childhood of a Leader, the directorial debut of 27-year-old American actor Brady Corbet. Co-starring Robert Pattinson and Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham, the film follows a few months in the childhood of a fictitious fascist.
Bookended by a stylistically arresting prologue and epilogue, the bulk of the film takes place in a French house around the time of the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. In a compellingly over the top conceit, Corbet divides this section of the film into three defined tantrums, each thrown by the child.
It’s an impersonal and vaguely run down house and it exerts a strange effect on its occupants. The father busies himself helping draft President Woodrow Wilson’s input into the treaty, the mother runs the household and the child ends up locking himself in his room for days on end.
A lot of this is captured in long, flowing takes. Among the heady camera work is an impressive close-up on a window that serves to bridge the movie’s prologue and first act. We slowly land on the boy in a church just as he’s preparing to go onstage for a Christmas pageant. It’s as if Corbet’s camera channels all of the extraordinary historical momentum of the film’s newsreel prologue and directly propels it onto the figure of this one boy.
With a single camera movement, Cobert seems to be asking what the relationship is between politics, history and psychology. It’s a heady question, and one that he doesn’t pin down so much as gesture towards understanding. There’s a genuine creepiness in this film’s juxtaposition of a loner kid’s dysfunctional childhood with later scenes of crowds worshipping him as an adult. It’s an ambitious, overconfident debut and I’ll certainly track down each of his subsequent movies.
There’s corporate and romantic drama, a lot of which I struggled to keep up with on account of festival exhaustion. Halfway through, I found myself dozing off, waking up every now and then to notice the tail-end of a dramatic song about an excel spreadsheet, or hundreds of suited men and women running for a deconstructed subway train. If you’re an open-minded spectacle chaser, Office 3D has a lot to give you.
Gradually and through judicious editing, Wiseman crafts a few narratives. There are the Hispanic organisations helping migrants with legal cases, the small business owners organising against big developers from Manhattan, and various LGBTI group meetings. These become recurring motifs, interspersed between so much else: scenes recording street vendors, Laundromats, tattoo artists and Starbucks meet-ups.
The scale of Wiseman’s filmmaking always astounds. How much footage does this man collect? How does he manage to capture people behaving as if his cameras don’t exist? Why is dropping in on procedural meetings so compelling?
Somewhat inexplicably, this was the MIFF film I saw that featured the highest number of walk-outs. Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall style might be idiosyncratic but it’s also far from inaccessible. And here it coalesces into a moving portrait of a community trying its best to wrangle several competing American dreams.
It’s a claustrophobic film, almost entirely taking place inside the king’s bedroom.
In one extraordinary sequence, we spend a good few minutes watching this man weakly glancing into the middle-distance. His death, as protracted and gruelling as it is, is rendered all the more so by Serra’s incredibly long takes and the excessive politeness regulating how his doctors and advisors interact with him. When it finally arrives it feels like a desperately sad relief.
Pity, then, that barely had the film’s final scene finished before the cinema lights flashed on and we were all rushing out the door. Onto the next thing.