Here is part two of the Chicago International Film Festival Preview I began last week.
Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
My favorite movie at this year’s CIFF is Stranger By the Lake by Alain Guiraudie, a filmmaker too little known outside of his native France. That will hopefully soon change as his latest, which won acclaim at Cannes (and raised more than a few eyebrows due to its inclusion of unsimulated sex acts), is set to receive wider international distribution than any of the director’s previous works. Stranger By the Lake works on multiple levels: at its most basic, it’s a dark (and darkly funny) erotic thriller about a young man named Franck (the superb Pierre Deladonchamps), who witnesses a murder at a provincial lake known to be a cruising spot for gay men. Franck’s attraction to the murderer, the handsome, almost God-like Michel (Christophe Paou), prevents him from going to the police, which allows Guiraudie to explore the “transfer of guilt” theme popularized by Hitchcock — this would make a great double feature with Strangers on a Train. Unlike most most “erotic thrillers,” however, the film’s explicit sex scenes seem less designed to titillate than to serve as a jumping off point for a complex inquiry into the nature of voyeurism and sexual desire. Finally, the movie functions almost as an ethnographic documentary, and a beautifully photographed one at that, into a very specific subculture; the camera never leaves the single setting comprised of the lakeshore, the woods and a nearby parking lot, a self-imposed, Hitchcock-style “limitation” that becomes a virtue given Guiraudie’s masterful mise-en-scene. One of the very best films of the year. Stranger By the Lake screens Friday, October 18th and Sunday, October 20th.
Trapped (Parviz Shahbazi, Iran)
Trapped is the latest film from Parviz Shahbazi (an acclaimed Iranian writer/director whose previous work I am unacquainted with). It centers on the unlikely and tenuous friendship of two young women thrown together by fate: Nazanin (Nazanin Bayati) is a quiet young medical student, who moves from a small town to Tehran to attend college and rents a room from Sahar (Pegah Ahangarani), an extroverted perfume shop clerk. When Sahar is arrested for bouncing a bad check, Nazanin signs a promissory note in order to cover her new roommate’s debt — but this act of goodwill soon sucks Sahar into a complex legal nightmare. In a weirdly fascinating way, one feels that Trapped, as with several other recent Iranian movies, is able to seriously explore a host of legal and moral issues precisely because of the shrewd way the filmmakers have to deftly sidestep local censorship laws. Even though this won’t receive the backing of Sony Pictures Classics and go on to Oscar glory, the plotting here is at least as skillful and suspenseful as that of A Separation, without resorting to that film’s more blatant narrative contrivances. Both of the lead actresses, incidentally, are excellent. Trapped screens Saturday, October 19th, Monday, October 21st and Tuesday, October 22nd.
At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Frederick Wiseman has become a legend in the world of documentary film for the way he has examined, patiently and quasi-objectively (i.e., his movies eschew voice-over narration and formal interviews), a raft of American institutions: a boxing gym, a prison, a housing project, a hospital, etc. At age 83, Wiseman has become something of an institution himself, and, while this 4-hour epic about the University of California at Berkeley has earned rave reviews from its first festival appearances, it lacks the intimacy and poignance of his seminal High School (1968), the film to which it serves as a kind of belated sequel. Exhausting but not exhaustive, At Berkeley devotes a lot of time to the school’s administrators, a little bit to the students and hardly any to the teachers. This means that, as the University faces a dire financial crisis, we see endless scenes of a bureaucratic Chancellor — a man with a creepy grin permanently frozen on his face — complaining about state funding drying up, but literally no scenes of professors describing how they are affected by the crunch. The only form of protest on display is one student’s insistence on returning to the days of “no tuition,” a scene that will be all too easy for viewers to dismiss as a crackpot pipe-dream. The complete lack of scenes depicting teachers’ union meetings, teachers talking to other teachers, or teachers doing anything other than addressing their classes gives the impression that Wiseman, consciously or not, has colluded with the administration in glorifying this particular institution and avoiding the real crisis plaguing the contemporary American education system: the Wal-Martification of its employment practices (e.g., eliminating tenure-track positions, hiring part-time instructors in record numbers, avoiding offering benefits, etc.). That movie, alas, will have to be made by someone else. At Berkeley screens Sunday, October 20th.
Soul (Chung Mong-Hong, Taiwan)
Venerable Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang (whose latest, Stray Dogs, is also playing this festival) has indicated in interviews that he may not make another film. It was therefore fitting and intensely gratifying to discover this bold Lynchian mind-bender by up-and-coming Taiwanese writer/director Chung Mong-Hong. Soul has been tagged as a “supernatural thriller” and a “horror movie” by various critics and programmers although, in spite of the inclusion of a couple of gruesome murder sequences, it’s far more adventurous than those labels imply. What story there is revolves around the question of transfiguration — as a young sushi chef from Taipei suddenly loses consciousness and collapses while on the job only to wake up and claim to be someone else. His co-workers take him to his father’s rural orchid farm to recuperate but dark family secrets soon come to light and a series of bizarre murders ensue. The real protagonist of the film is the father (a great role for the legendary Jimmy Wang Yu), a recent stroke victim who is consumed by feelings of guilt and a desire to amend past wrongs, and the way Chung explores father-son dynamics is hauntingly ambiguous: is this a literal tale of possession or is there a psychological explanation for everything, one that demands the film be read more as allegory? Either way, this is gripping and highly original stuff. Soul screens Monday, October 21st, Tuesday, October 22nd and Wednesday October 23rd.
October 14th, 2013 at 9:40 pm
Sounds interesting. Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake and Chung Mong-Hong’s Soul are the ones I want to see first out of this whole batch.
October 16th, 2013 at 9:57 am
I hope you get a chance to see those films, John. I’ve also got to say I’m a little surprised no documentary buffs came here to chide me for my negative review of At Berkeley!
October 20th, 2013 at 11:29 pm
I was impressed with At Berkeley, insofar as I thought Wiseman was establishing a hierarchy that mirrors our own – elite 1% (administration) and the working poor (students). The middle class (professors) slowly swept away into part-time positions. The only real “narrative” involving the demonstration and administrations’ response was a fine microcosm example of contemporary culture, I thought.
Still, there were scenes where I couldn’t help but feel like I was auditing a class, which on the whole, made it feel a little un-cinematic.
October 21st, 2013 at 7:47 am
Thanks for the response, Daniel. I wish I had more confidence that Wiseman was establishing the “hierarchy that mirrors our own” of which you speak. But it seemed to me like he merely had his priorities in the wrong place and gave way too much running time to the wrong people (i.e., the ones who gave him access to make the movie).
I’ve often heard people say things like “The only reason Bob Dylan’s new albums get good reviews is because he’s Bob Dylan.” Well, those people are wrong about Bob Dylan but that’s exactly how I feel about Wiseman and AT BERKELEY: the only reason this film is getting rave reviews is because he’s a living legend and it’s 4 hours long. AT BERKELEY was the worst movie I saw at CIFF.
October 21st, 2013 at 9:20 am
I suppose you didn’t catch such duds like Raze or Breathe In. 😛
I’m pretty bummed that I didn’t catch Stranger By the Lake. Not sure if its been picked by a distributor, but the positive buzz at least indicates it might get a limited release down the line.
As far as CIFF offerings go, I was very impressed with Miele, The Harvest, and Like Father Like Son. And stuff like The Immigrant, Nebraska, and 12 Years a Slave hit the spot too.
October 21st, 2013 at 9:32 am
Ha! You are correct that I missed those. Actually, I would say the 13 films I saw ranged from the pretty good to the masterful. I also really loved THE IMMIGRANT (which I’ll be reviewing next week).
STRANGER BY THE LAKE has been picked up by Strand Releasing so you’ll definitely have a chance to see it (and on the big screen) pretty soon.
November 30th, 2013 at 11:30 am
[…] Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France) Rating: 9.8 (Review here.) […]
December 30th, 2013 at 8:20 am
[…] 25. Soul (Chung, Taiwan) – Chicago International Film Festival – Rating: 8.0. More here. […]
June 15th, 2022 at 7:01 pm
[…] 10/14: Stranger “would make a great double feature with Strangers on a Train,” suggests Michael Smith, who’s caught the film in Chicago. “Unlike most most ‘erotic thrillers,’ […]
June 15th, 2022 at 7:03 pm
[…] 10/14: For Michael Smith, the “complete lack of scenes depicting teachers’ union meetings, teachers talking to other […]