As I was seated in Montreal’s Imperial Cinema waiting for the curtain to rise on Tony Gatlif’s Transylvania, I calmly supped upon some pasta salad that I had brought with me. All of a sudden, the woman next to me exclaims: “Just my luck.” Is she talking to me? I don’t see anyone else around here… I turned to her and asked what was up. “I come to the best theatre in the city,” she says, “and the guy sitting next to me is eating pasta salad.” “You don’t like pasta salad?” “I don’t like food in theatres.” Well, this I can understand. But I explained to her that I wasn’t going to eat during the film, and that I had just come from work, had a full evening of screenings ahead, and had no time to sit and eat a proper meal. I guess I could have gone outside with the smokers, but I really didn’t see this as necessary. I’m quiet during screenings, and I pack my garbage out with me. So I finished my meal, though a little unnerved by her energy. As the curtain went up, I leaned over and confessed to her that I had actually been thinking of nibbling a brownie while watching the film but that, for her sake, I would refrain. She assured me that it would be alright, and that, in fact, she had brought some chocolate to nibble on herself. I guess we all draw our lines at different points in the sand.
After the film we talked about it some more and I came to appreciate her opinion very highly. Theatre spaces were sacred to her, like churches and other places of worship and contemplation. You don’t eat in a museum because you have respect for the art. I agreed, but suggested that in a movie theatre the art is not present until the film is on the screen. But the idea that the space of the theatre itself commands respect is one that I like very much. This is an idea that has fallen by the wayside with the dominance of contemporary multiplexes. Indeed, a theatre like the Imperial, with its gothic styling and grand stature, does feel more like a temple than a place of entertainment. I was surprised by her convictions not because I don’t agree with them, but because I’ve never met anyone who felt so strongly about this before. I’ve often been in favour of arriving at theatres early so as to settle in and absorb the space as a kind of preliminary meditation on whatever is about to unfold as the film unspools. This is impossible with music and advertisements blaring at us prior to multiplex screenings, but such is not the case at the Imperial. Such preliminary mediation is exactly what she had come to do, and I spoiled it for her by munching away from the seat next door like I was in a food court. I can understand why she would find this irritating, and her reaction gives me hope that perhaps the cinema has not yet been entirely lost to the snack whores.
Renowned Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has suggested that people like to eat at the movies because the medium is inherently lacking in its communicative potential. Because there is no presence other than representational imagery and sounds, there is nothing for the audience to connect with, and thus we require external substance to help round out the experience. Needless to say I disagree with his conviction that it is cinema as a medium which has resulted in this propensity towards cinema snacking, but I do agree that something must have gone awry to lead us to this state of affairs. I suggest it is not the medium but rather the quality of the films themselves. I know firsthand that for some films I require popcorn while others I couldn’t think of eating anything that would distract my attention. And I think the same could be said for theatre spaces themselves. Certain spaces, like the contemporary multiplex, demand consumption because it is upon consumption that the space was conceived. Again, the Imperial is no such place, and respectable movie houses like this and the festivals other two venues, Ex-Centris and the Cinematheque Quebecoise, demand to be treated differently. They were indeed conceived to house art, not the consumption of product. So a distinction needs to be made. And I thank my neighbor for reminding me that some people still do have respect not only for films but for the spaces in which they are presented.
Right. Down to business. The theme I’ve latched onto for this year’s festival is that of the beautiful portrayal of ugliness, a seeming paradox that is achieved with such startling regularity that it begs the question posed by John Cage many years ago: When I think of something as being ugly, I must ask myself why I think this. The answer is never forthcoming. For Cage this meant that everything is beautiful, or has the power to be if the right attention is directed towards it. When a filmmaker grapples with unsettling subject matter often associated with the ugliness of humanity, they have the power to reveal that this ugliness is a product only of our perception, and nothing more. By approaching such subject matter with the right attention to detail, films can lift the veil of our preconceptions and challenge us to reconcile the poles of beauty and beastliness as part and parcel of the same thing. All the films I discuss here have achieved this reconciliation to varying degrees.
My festival favourite this year was Aki Kaurismaki’s Lights in the Dusk. It came early in the program and set a tone that I couldn’t help but hold up as a standard throughout the remaining days. Comparing Kaurismaki to Bruno Dumont or other festival darlings is, of course, like comparing apples to oranges. But at a very basic level what I want most out of cinema, art, and life in general is a sense that those I choose to spend my time with exhibit an undeniable passion for life that becomes tangible through their work. This doesn’t mean that I exclusively enjoy films which radiate sunshine and roses. Even some of the most seemingly hopeless and disdainful works of art can be tied to a general positivism that lies at the root of the creative impulse. When I saw Satantango for the first time at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver, BC, someone asked Bela Tarr after the show why he was such pessimist. After all, the film spends no less than seven hours dragging us through the grey, rain-soaked hopelessness of Hungarian rural communities and their struggles to attain some level of comfort in their lives. Tarr answered with something like this: “If I was a pessimist, I wouldn’t have spent 6 months wading through knee-deep mud to make this film and bring it here to you.” Tarr’s films may indeed cut a stark view of contemporary experience in Eastern Europe, but there is something palpably positive about these films that burst through the surface of the screen and touch me on that level where it most counts. Some filmmakers operate out of desire to smack their audiences upside the head, throw us to the ground, and keep on kicking once we’re down in acts of pure nihilistic terrorization. Gaspar Noé, perhaps? But when faced with the very different challenges offered by Kaurismaki and, indeed, Bruno Dumont, there is unmistakable love to be found there. It is this love that keeps me engaged.
Kaurismaki’s latest film is, in many respects, very much like all the others. Finland once again appears rather hopeless, and the key players offer little to suggest that their lives are fulfilling in any way, shape, or form. Yet this tale of a hapless night watchman who gets setup by a local gangster’s moll to take the fall for a jewelry heist is placed within an aesthetic so rich I could hardly contain myself while watching. It was one of those pure, fundamental experiences of a work of art where I’m not thinking about what’s happening and my critical voice is shut down, yet I am not drawn into a compulsive narrative drive or being mesmerized by the spectacular. The film, like its protagonist, sits in a kind of limbo where the colour of a woman’s shirt is as important as what she’s saying to her victim. Not because we’re going to see a flash of red go by on a stretcher and realize that the poor little girl we were made to empathize with in Schindler’s List has died. No, the red shirt in Kaurismaki’s film carries no such direct signification. But a red such as this I have scarcely seen in the cinema, or anywhere else, and that goes for all the colours worn by people, walls, floors, and skies throughout the film. I don’t know how Kaurismaki and his cinematographer achieved the level of attention to surface details in this film, but to have done so in the context of such a bleak tale says something about the filmmakers’ view of their subjects. The people, as is so often the case in Kaurismaki’s films, are expressionless. Why do they even bother getting up in the morning? There seems nothing to look forward to. They might as well just die. And yet the quotidian details of their world are treated with such love that it seems impossible that they aren’t somehow a part of that. A film like this asks us to question the relationship between aesthetics and narrative as much as any that I have seen. If the way a film looks and sounds is inextricably linked to what happens within the story that the film tells, then there is no escaping the fact that the lives of these banal creatures is far from bleak, and that attention to the surfaces of their world can grant us access to the warmth that rests deep within their souls. If dusk is a time when we begin to lose our differentiation between objects within our field of vision, and everything becomes subject to a generalizing murk, then the lights of the film’s title suggest that, against the backdrop of the dark, that which shines brightly stands out all the more. All that, plus the film boasts my favourite of Kaurismaki’s rock n’ roll interludes to date. Watch out for the bar band and you’ll know what I mean.
Lights in the Dusk
Dumont’s Flandres is a bit of a different beast. Here there seems no conflict between the way the film’s audiovisual aesthetic interacts with its characters, story, and subject matter. Barbe and Demester are a young rural town couple who has passionless, brutish sex and express love for one another most unconvincingly. But this isn’t a story about relationship angst and the difficulties in communication within modern day relationships. Rather, this is a story of an immutable bond that suffers nothing when placed under scrutiny. Why are these two together? Who knows. She, at least, seems interested in more than just this one guy. Gaining a reputation as a bit of a slut, she sleeps with several of the boys in town, one of whom becomes seemingly as important to her as her official boyfriend. The two even co-exist together for some time. While Demester isn’t happy that Barbe is also hanging out with Blondel, the trio still spend time together, and no violence erupts between the men as you might expect from a more conventional treatment of the love triangle scenario. Until the boys go off to war, that is. Amidst the frank and bold portrayal of the horrors of war in an undisclosed desert environment a crucial turn of events takes place. The boys are captured. With the help of an air strike they manage to escape, but while on the run Blondel falls. Demester has the power to help him, but chooses not to. Meanwhile back at home, Barbe is suffering from some psychological distress and is hospitalized. It turns out that she’s having visions of what the men are experiencing, and when Demester returns home she screams viciously “I know what you did!” Yet she accepts him nonetheless, and they resume their relations, now minus Blondel.
And so Dumont gives us his answer to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour: a love triangle is solved by the brutality of war. In Pearl Harbour it seems that Ben Affleck was always meant for Liv Tyler, and that other guy was just a stand-in while Affleck was out of commission. Here we get the sense that Blondel and Demester were of equal importance to Barbe, and that there existed the possibility that they might be able to form a relationship forged from outside the boundaries of conventional monogamy. This unconventionality is reflected by Barbe’s ability to think outside the box, if you will. Her connection to these men while they are far away suggests something that belies the frank and grounded nature of Dumont’s style. That there should be something transcendent or metaphysical amidst all this dust, dirt, lust, and practical partnership is somehow bizarre. Yet clearly Dumont doesn’t see these things as irreconcilable. In Humanité, the investigating officer levitates just before his secret is revealed. In Flandres, Barbe has a moment where she tries this same trick, standing high on the tips of her toes, but does not break contact with the ground. But while her feet don’t lose contact, she does indeed leave the ground. She has seen into distant lands, the love she has for her men allowing her the ability to remain connected to them at a distance. And this distant connection is embodied by her levitation attempt. She remains grounded while reaching far out, and this is what makes Dumont’s films so special. They are difficult to endure in their combination of banality and distressing physical relationships, be they violent, sexual, or a combination of the two. But these relationships lead to an expanded knowledge of the world, and lay the foundation for a transcendent cinema that seems anything but. The beastly becomes beautiful indeed.
Speaking of which, Karim Hussain’s La Belle Bête posits a family situation that most would be hard pressed to discover the beauty within. And yet a more passionate exploration of the dark recesses of disturbed youth plagued by compulsive vanity would be hard to find. The consistency in the film’s visual, aural, and emotional tones is an impressive achievement. Hussain shot the film himself, and there’s a warmth to the photography which, combined with a thick grain reminiscent of Kubrick’s forced developing strategies on Eyes Wide Shut, makes for a suitably textured aesthetic environment in which the characters play out their dysfunctions. In a film where an attention starved daughter exacts brutal and violent revenge on her brother, mother, and stepfather, there is fine line between tasteful horror and ridiculous gore. Hussain treads that line with finesse. We were not spared any graphic violence. The daughter in question gives explicit birth by c-section to a daughter of her own. As this scene plays out, we intercut with her brother – poisoned against their stepfather by the bad energy instilled by his sister – chasing the man down with a horse, who ultimately tromps upon his head splitting his skull wide open. These could have been moments that slipped into a B-movie splatter sensibility, but Hussain held the reigns tight and the gore treatment here worked beautifully.
Karim Hussain at the helm of the camera
But there is more to this film than just these kinds of graphic outbursts; there is also a consistent psychological element to the film which keeps us wondering, via the recurrent apparition of a man with a horse’s head looming near, if what we are seeing could possibly be happening. Yet only once do we awake with our heroine from a slasher’s dream in which she butchers her family with a carving knife. For the rest of the film we’re left to displace our wondering from, “could” this really be happening to, “why” is this really happening. And surely this is the question the young woman’s daughter asks when, at age 5 or so, she witnesses her mother scorching her uncle with boiling water, and later setting her grandmother on fire, taking the family home down with her. “I do these things because I love you,” mommy responds. It’s a strange kind of love to be sure. But no stranger than the love of cinema that Hussain chooses to express by these seemingly distressing means. The film is well acted, deftly paced, wonderfully shot, and graced with beautiful auditory treatments by David Kristian. While it would have played well at the Fantasia festival, this is not your average outing into the violently deranged. With La Belle Bête Hussain has come into his own. I look forward to what will be coming next.
Caroline Dhavernas as the attention starved daughter
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