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Culture

MIFF notebook: of decadence, PR shills and all that’s good about film

Bouncing from cocktail to cinema, Anders Furze ponders the meaning of MIFF, and notes the best and worst of this year’s line up.

Words by Anders Furze
 

Film festivals exist for all sorts of reasons, the movies being just one of them. At its best, a film festival takes what makes life worth living (arguing, crying, drinking, art), combines it with a fair chunk of the stuff that doesn’t (brand-synergising, horse-trading, in-fighting), and injects the resulting concoction directly into your veins. For three weeks.

There are some people whose jobs, and therefore lives, are geared around doing this at a different successive location again and again. I wonder what it feels like for these people when the high comes off, when their tolerance levels peak? I’m not sure I’m in a rush to find out.

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My comparatively modest experience of the 65th annual Melbourne International Film Festival begins at the latest incarnation of the cafe and bar next to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

Seemingly every couple of years ACMI decides they need to do something to this place. They called it Optic for a bit (Get it? Vision is key to cinema), but now it’s just the straight up ACMI Cafe and Bar. It’s a weird space that has never quite worked, the kind of place that serves lemon lime and bitters in bottles and not from the bar.

But it’s convenient, and with the ACMI membership discount it’s fairly cheap; so, you know, things could be worse.

As I take a seat at a table next to the kitchen, the audience for whatever movie just played begins to filter out. It starts as a trickle: four or five men walking with purpose, separated by just enough distance to let you know they’re strangers.

Then: a flood of people. Things get noisy. I think about whether cinema is dying because all these people left before the end of the credits.

LOL, of course not. This is an easy trap for the self-important festival diarist to fall into: turning every observation into a stand-in for something bigger, something that resonates. Sometimes, all you’re doing is sitting at a table watching people walking out of a cinema. I vow to ease up on the hyperbolic pessimism.

Next stop: the festival lounge. This year’s brand synergy has turned the lounge into the “Blackhearts Club”, named after Melbourne wine store Blackhearts & Sparrows.

The atmosphere grows livelier as the night wears on. At one point Festival artistic director Michelle Carey takes to the stage and implores us to sing ‘Happy Birthday’, in honour of MIFF’s 65th anniversary. Nobody really takes part, but we all applaud at the end.

The official announcement made a big deal about how decadent the whole thing would be: The building’s grand, otherworldly interior will be filled with decadent foliage and French bistro style tables, all centred around a Steinway & Sons concert grand piano. Imagine the heady romance of The Ritz or The Stork Club: stately hotel lounges of days gone by, the woozy glamour of speakeasy bars. Decadent indulgence like this doesn’t exist anywhere else in Melbourne.”

Must we seek decadence from our film festivals (let alone from our foliage)?

It turns out that it doesn’t really matter anyway. The lounge is quite dark and, yes, there are a few ferns dotted about. But the best and really only important thing about it is that it makes use of the forum’s booths. God, I appreciate the back support of a good booth.

The atmosphere grows livelier as the night wears on. At one point Festival artistic director Michelle Carey takes to the stage and implores us to sing ‘Happy Birthday’, in honour of MIFF’s 65th anniversary. Nobody really takes part, but we all applaud at the end.

Somebody takes the microphone and yells at us to sing it again. Once again, nobody does. Once again we all applaud at the end.

There’s a metaphor in there about cultural engagement that I can’t quite be bothered teasing out. At the very least, it’s reassuring that beneath the blue carpet, MIFF retains a slightly shambolic heart.

But back to the booths. The next day I find myself joining assorted critics, Tweeters and PR shills at one. An air of gentle defeat surrounds us, as if we’ve all been quietly beaten into submission by movies.

The official ‘Le Grand Fizz’ MIFF cocktail helps. According to the PR material, it’s “served at the top award parties, enjoyed by celebrities at the Oscars, Toronto Film Festival and for the first time, MIFF.”

I buy myself some second-hand liquid glamour and the conversation turns to Joe Cinque’s Consolation, a dramatic adaptation of the famed Helen Garner book. As we talk, the movie is in the midst of its premiere. Early word from those who have already seen it is that it’s very good, although conversation quickly turns to how divisive a figure Garner is.

What follows is my favourite annual MIFF ritual: Hoyts Melbourne Central on a Saturday night. It’s barely controlled chaos at the multiplex as arthouse crowds jostle in colliding queues. There’s a buzz in the air, the kind that comes from different worlds colliding.

Later, as I’m sitting down in the cinema, the woman next to me returns to her seat with a jumbo bucket of popcorn and two plastic glasses of red wine.

“I felt so silly carrying this,” she says about the popcorn. “But it was only $1 more than the medium!”

A woman behind laughs at her.

I wonder why the concept of drinking wine out of plastic cups at Hoyts gets a free pass. People who are ashamed of eating popcorn in a cinema: that’s one definition of a film festival audience.

The movies

The first film I saw at this year’s festival was an 11.30pm Friday showing of The Eyes of My Mother (Nicholas Pesce, 2016). This is an odd little film, seemingly pointless. Or maybe its point is solely to provoke its audience into contemplating our response to the film. It’s a response that, for me at least, becomes more disturbing the more I think about it.

There were a few walk-outs.

Twenty-six year-old Nicholas Pesce’s debut feature film follows a young Portuguese/American girl (played as a woman by the incredibly striking Kika Magalhaes) as she either kills people or mutilates and then chains them up in her barnyard.

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This is all captured in beautiful, mostly steady black and white cinematography.

Some of the film’s camera placement choices are gimmicky, inadvertently drawing attention away from what’s happening inside the frame. Mostly though, it works very well. As an example of this film’s imagery: a particularly awful scene sees a chained-up young mother, her throat and eyes cut out, reaching and rasping for her terrified son, who doesn’t know who she is.

There’s a dark magic propelling this film, woven not just by what’s happening onscreen but how it’s depicted.

The setting for all of this is not quite clear: it’s a house and barn surrounded by dense trees in some part of America (?). The time period is not quite clear: characters age but keep the same 1950s TV shows (?) playing in the background.

There are several temporal elisions in this film that further disorient you. Rather cleverly, the film’s opening image is echoed about halfway through, and then repeated towards the end.

All of this means that this movie refuses to give its audience anything concrete to latch onto, which is key, I think, to its overall dreamlike quality.

The Eyes of My Mother has all the properties of the worst kind of nightmare, the kind that scares but also charms you, and saves its true power for when you wake up.

I first discovered Eugène Green at last year’s MIFF when I watched La Sapienza, a movie that I felt was the very definition of insufferably pretentious. For reasons still a bit unknown to me, I decided I had to watch his follow up, Le Fils de Joseph, this year. I’m very glad I did.

Green has a very distinctive filmmaking style. Depending on how generous you’re feeling you could characterise it as either awkwardly stilted or refreshingly formalist.

What this means in practice is that his frames are perfectly composed, and characters often talk to each other by standing still and staring directly at the camera. At times, the audience becomes a bit of a stand-in for the other characters, at other times we’re standing in for great works of art (hey, I’ll take it!).

Green also revels in the architecture and art of Western Europe. Frescoes, spires, stairs and streets: all are swept up in his camera’s uncritically adoring gaze.

It’s a curious beast, this film. Le Fils de Joseph follows Vincent, a teenage boy living in an impossibly beautiful Parisian apartment with his single mother, Marie. He tries to track down his biological father (a smug publisher wonderfully played by Matthieu Almeric) but becomes attached instead to the man’s estranged brother. As the film goes on, it becomes a pseudo-retelling of the Nativity story by way of literary satire and extended digressions on the beauty and importance of Christian art.

It might seem like a weird, sad indictment on the state of things that a filmmaker must embed a justification of his artistic mode within his work, but such are the times we live in.

It should probably be obvious that this is not for everybody, and there were plenty of walk outs. For me, it took this film over an hour to begin to work. I felt the style too heightened, veering a bit too oddly between satire and sincerity.

But then, just over halfway through, this film hit me with such a force that for a good 20 minutes, everything else washed away.

Joseph takes Vincent to a church, where a musical group is rehearsing some sort of performance. An opera singer begins to sing, and the rest of the film recedes into the background of this performance. The libretto’s lyrics describe the awe-inspiring tragedy of great beauty, likens it to a flower that, once picked, will forever be starting to wilt. It’s probably some famous song but I have no idea what it is (Tweet me if you know what this is, please!)

Anyway, the magic of this scene comes when Green’s camera cuts back to the boy and the man. Both, standing desperately still, are clearly emotionally affected by this performance.

Immediately afterwards, we cut to Vincent and his mother in their apartment. The song has had a profound impact on him: he is no longer the surly teenager of the film’s first half but an emotionally transformed young man.

It’s a beautiful moment, but as Green shows us, it’s tragic as well. As the lyrics suggest, Vincent will never be as beautiful as he is at this very moment. Nor will he be as emotionally open.

Every day that comes will age him a little bit — not just physically but emotionally, spiritually, artistically. The beauty of the song will fade into Vincent’s memory, just as the beauty of this realisation will fade into mine. The flower will wilt.

There’s lots of other stuff in here too, including some delightfully funny satirical jabs at the social-climbers of the French literary scene. And the gradual escalation of references to the Nativity scene culminates in a wonderful final act set on a beach.

Towards the end of Le Fils de Joseph, there’s a scene where Joseph and Marie have dinner together after seeing a movie. They lament how deeply cynicism has embedded itself within the culture. Both argue for a mode of living that embraces genuine artistic connection as a form of emancipation from the slow torture of ironic engagement.

It might seem like a weird, sad indictment on the state of things that a filmmaker must embed a justification of his artistic mode within his work, but such are the times we live in.

There’s a lot to like about this film, but its middle section deserves special mention. In what is essentially a film-within-a-film, Assayas slavishly follows Stewart’s character as she takes the train from Paris to London and back again, all the while texting an anonymous, threatening stranger.

It seems bizarre to be typing these words but there’s something intensely hypnotic about watching Stewart texting for such an extended period of time. The phone buzzes, she taps something, she clicks send, the message is “seen”, the reply is written. Rinse and repeat. This goes on for at least 30 minutes as beautiful boutiques, transit lounges and urban streetscapes play second fiddle to an iPhone screen.

Have I sold this to you yet? If not, maybe the ectoplasm-vomiting ghosts will do it for you. Yes, this is an almost unclassifiable film, as entertaining as Clouds of Sils Maria, if ultimately not as rewarding. 

Filmmaker Robert Greene follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of real-life woman Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter who shot herself to death on live TV in 1974. The catch is, the role she’s playing is in a film that doesn’t exist outside the boundaries of this documentary.

Because Sheil has to do research for her role, the bulk of this movie is really about Christine Chubbuck. Sheil interviews Chubbuck’s colleagues, talks to a psychologist and even visits her house. From these interactions a compelling portrait of sorts emerges.

But because this is a “clever” documentary, we also see Sheil wearing a wig, Sheil getting spray-tans, and Sheil emotionally responding to learning about Chubbuck’s story. It all gets a bit meta, and there’s a genuine question to be asked about whether the real life tragedy of this death deserves such treatment.

To be fair, it’s a question Greene’s documentary asks. One of the biggest questions it explicitly raises is: how to do justice to Chubbuck’s life, by focusing so intensely on her death? The film attempts to answer this question by having Sheil repeatedly break down as she attempts to recreate the moment, before going into a meltdown on set. This moment self-consciously echoes the ‘mad as hell’ meltdown in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), which was itself, according to this documentary, inspired by what Chubbuck did.

It’s a hall of mirrors, in other words, and I’m not quite sure what they’re reflecting beyond the filmmakers’ supposed genius. At any rate, they’re definitely not reflecting Christine Chubbuck. For that we have to watch the straight biopic Christine, which in a bizarre bit of synergy is also currently doing the festival rounds and playing at this year’s MIFF.

Still, there are some pearls of wisdom in here. A veteran local newsman notes at one point in the film that “nobody remembers yesterday’s headline.” This is a profound observation, not least in its implied justification of the role art plays in our collective cultural memory. That’s how you get something to linger.

Set on a rocky island inhabited only by women and pubescent boys, Evolution’s bare plot follows one young boy as he slowly realises that things here aren’t quite right. He also gives birth.

None of this really matters though. It’s the images that this film truly excels at, which combine with a soft soundtrack to create something deeply unsettling. The boys’  abdomens are sliced open, the women slowly bathe them in seawater, and there’s a dead body (or is there?) wedged on the sea floor.

Thinking about Evolution now as I write this is seriously giving me the creeps. What does it all mean? I’m not sure that it really matters, which makes the film’s final shot, an attempt simultaneously to resolve the narrative while posing it as a question, something of a disappointment.

By that stage in Evolution, I could not care less where the story was going. All I knew was that I wasn’t ready for it to end, because that would mean having to think about it. And I don’t particularly want to follow those thoughts to their conclusions.

On the tram ride home, I tried my best not to think about Evolution. But the cumulative strength of its images well and truly buried the film inside my mind. Both the act of being born and the act of hitting puberty are, Hadžihalilović suggests, terrifying. Horrific, even. Evolution’s images know and express this. I think that’s the key to unlocking this film – but I’ll let you open the door yourself.

She plays Michelle, a video game company CEO whose sexual assault is first heard and then seen at the start of the film. From this moment on, the film delights in constantly frustrating our expectations of how a rape victim would act in these circumstances.

What could seemingly be exploitative or tiringly provocative (see: The Neon Demon) is instead compellingly rendered by Huppert’s frankly astounding performance. From the moment immediately following her assault onwards she is seemingly never not in control of what is happening. Elle becomes less a rape comedy/thriller (though there are comedic and thrilling aspects) than a character study of the She of the title.

There’s a moment in this film where we see Michelle’s sexual assault again, only this time she fights back against her assailant. What follows is a very telling 10 seconds.

Verhoeven cuts to a shot of Huppert, staring into the middle distance. After a couple of beats a half-smile forms on her face. It’s a perfectly timed gesture, giving us enough space to fluidly transition from the shock of seeing the sexual assault again to the bleak humour of realising that this is Michelle’s fantasy of how she could have responded.

It is in this single gesture, in a transition from a blank face to an ambiguous smile, that is Elle’s primary territory, and it is to the film’s immense benefit that Verhoeven  seemingly cedes control of the boundary drawing to Huppert.

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