AtCine-File Chicago, I have capsule reviews of Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical and Marco Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams, both of which screen during the first week of the Chicago International Film Festival. Both reviews are reprinted in their entirety below:
Alain Guiraudie’s STAYING VERTICAL (New French)
Alain Guiraudie’s unique brand of pansexual Surrealism has accrued a steady cinephile following since 2001 when his second feature, THAT OLD DREAM THAT MOVES, drew praise from no less a luminary than Jean-Luc Godard. The transgressive director’s international breakthrough didn’t come until 2013, however, when his sexually explicit serial-killer thriller STRANGER BY THE LAKE took Cannes by storm. STAYING VERTICAL, Guiraudie’s darkly comedic follow-up, is as narratively loose and shaggy as STRANGER is tight and compressed, and is likely to puzzle viewers unfamiliar with his non-narrative earlier work. The digressive plot follows the misadventures of Leo (Damien Bonnard), a creatively blocked screenwriter who traverses the French countryside in search of inspiration. After fathering a child with a shepherdess (India Hair) who abandons him to raise the baby alone, Leo encounters a menagerie of male caretakers and father figures of ambiguous sexuality in a series of dreamlike scenes that increasingly gain power in both hilarity and allegorical resonance. Although Guiraudie is more of a poet than a polemicist, this delightfully off-the-wall oddity is perhaps best understood as a provocative defense of gay parenthood in a country where such a notion remains a lightning rod for controversy. (2016, 100 min, DCP Digital) MGS
— Marco Bellocchio’s SWEET DREAMS (New Italian)
Even if his films no longer make as big of a splash on these shores as those of younger contemporaries like Paolo Sorrentino or Matteo Garrone, Marco Bellocchio (FISTS IN THE POCKET) remains Italy’s greatest living director. Eschewing the controversial subject matter of recent works like VINCERE and DORMANT BEAUTY, the maestro’s latest feature is a bittersweet drama about the lifelong attempts of journalist Massimo (Valeria Mastrandrea) to come to terms with his mother’s death. By examining how childhood trauma can cast a shadow over an individual’s entire life, this adaptation of Massimo Gramellini’s novel seems both quintessentially Italian (the theme of the cult of “mamma”) and specific to Bellocchio (shuttling between multiple characters and timelines and featuring gorgeous “Rembrandt lighting” throughout). While the sentimentality inherent in the source material will not be for all tastes, I would gladly trade most of the movies I’ve seen in the 2010s for one sequence, a blast of pure cinema, in which the adult Massimo cuts loose on a dance floor to the tune of the Trashmen’s immortal “Surfin’ Bird.” Not a masterwork, perhaps, but certainly the work of a master. (2016, 134 min, DCP Digital) MGS
— Check the festival’s website for the most up-to-date showtime information:www.chicagofilmfestival.com.
Here is part two of the Chicago International Film Festival Preview I began last week.
Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France) Rating: 9.8
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) Rating: 7.7
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) Rating: 5.1
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) Rating: 8.1
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.
Here are a baker’s dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. I actually compiled this list before the release a couple weeks ago of CIFF’s “Sneak Preview” confirming that Blue is the Warmest Color will indeed receive its Chicago premiere at the Fest. I also forgot that the Jarmusch movie has no chance in hell of making the cut because it’s being released by Sony Pictures Classics, a distributor with a long track record of pointedly not submitting their films to CIFF. But whatever. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. I’m including links to trailers or clips wherever possible.
Early reaction to Claire Denis’ latest has been typically divisive but fans of the grand dame of French art cinema have reasons to set expectations high: this stars Michel Subor (who also starred in my two favorite Denis films: Beau Travail and The Intruder) as a sleazy businessman who somehow brings a middle-class family to ruin. More importantly, it has been described as Denis at her grimmest — as well as her most puzzle-like and elliptical. As someone who thinks Denis’ greatest strengths arise from the abstract alchemy she works in collaboration with cinematographer Agnes Godard and composer Stuart Staples, that is music to my ears.
Blind Detective (To, Hong Kong)
The Cannes premiere of Johnnie To’s latest seemed to provoke predominantly quizzical reactions from critics, many of whom condescendingly assumed that its more delirious elements were specifically designed to go over well with Hong Kong audiences. But for fans (who truly span the globe) of the world’s greatest genre filmmaker, this sounds like Johnnie To heaven: it reunites Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (who first teamed up in To’s Needing You way back in 2000), the former as the title character who comes out of retirement to help solve a cold case. There’s also supposedly slapstick comedy, grisly murders, mystery, romance, cannibalism and “food porn.” Who wouldn’t want to see this?
Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)
I’m still not sure how I feel about Abdellatif Kechiche, the talented Tunisian-born French filmmaker whose latest, a controversial coming-of-age lesbian love story, took Cannes by storm. I like the way he plays with narrative structure: there are scenes in his highly regarded The Secret of the Grain that are “too long” that eventually take on a kind of hypnotic quality (a scene of an extended family eating together, a climactic belly dance) and yet, aesthetically, he also indulges in an overuse of close-ups and a sub-Dardennes style of shaky-cam realism that feels uninspired. If nothing else, Blue is the Warmest Color should be worth seeing for the performances of the lead actresses, who, in an unprecedented move, were asked to share the Palme d’Or with their director by the Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury.
Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran)
Incredibly, this is Jafar Panahi’s second film to be clandestinely made and smuggled out of Iran since the director was placed under house arrest in 2010 and banned from making films for 20 years. The first, the documentary This Is Not a Film, was shot on a cheap digital camera and an iPhone and dealt explicitly with Panahi’s imprisonment. (It was also one of the best films I saw last year.) This follow-up is a narrative — about a man and his dog on the run from corrupt government officials — in which the fictional story supposedly gives way to something more self-reflexive when Panahi himself appears onscreen. Closed Curtain received raves in Berlin where it won the Best Screenplay prize.
The Immigrant (Gray, USA)
I’m a latecomer in appreciating James Gray, an ambitious writer/director whose mature character-based dramas hark back to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. A year ago I was completely unfamiliar with his formidable body of work but I’ve now seen his first four films and I think each one is better than the last. So I’m especially excited to see The Immigrant, his first period piece, which won raves (but no awards) at Cannes. This deals with a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) in early 20th-century Manhattan caught between a vicious pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a kind-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner).
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA)
With the exception of The Big Lebowski, which I think is a masterpiece of modern comedy, I tend to admire the films of the Coen brothers more than I actually like them (and some of their more smart-alecky exercises I actively dislike). I must admit, however, that Inside Llewyn Davis looks exceptionally promising — not because of the predictable raves at Cannes (where they’ve always been feted, and walked off with the Best Director prize even for The Man Who Wasn’t There) — but because of the subject matter: what looks to be an impeccable recreation of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early Sixties loosely based on the autobiography of underappreciated singer Dave Van Ronk. This has been described as low-key and unusually heartfelt. Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake star.
Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (Desplechin, France/USA)
Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) is one of the most interesting French directors at work today. Jimmy P., a Michigan-shot Franco-American co-production, tells the true story of the relationship between a French psychoanalyst (Mathieu Amalric) and an American Plains Indian and WWII vet (Benicio Del Toro). This got mixed reviews at Cannes (with the most frequent criticisms being that it’s too talky and cinematically conventional) but it also had its defenders and looks right up my alley in a John Ford-meets-A Dangerous Method kind of way. Kent Jones, one of America’s finest film critics, co-wrote the screenplay.
A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)
For almost 20 years Jia Zhangke has been an important chronicler of China’s present, illustrating how ordinary citizens have been affected by the PRC’s rapidly changing social, political and economic landscapes. A Touch of Sin has been described as something of a departure in that it includes gangster-movie elements, and shows how the lives of four loosely-related characters are touched by violence. Jia took home the Best Screenplay prize for this at Cannes. The title is a play on A Touch of Zen, King Hu’s seminal martial arts movie from 1971.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof, Iran)
Mohammad Rasoulof isn’t as well known as Jafar Panahi but he’s a talented filmmaker who has likewise gotten into hot water with the Iranian authorities for his explicitly political work. His latest has something to do with two low-level government workers who are tasked with assassinating a dissident writer and making it look like a suicide. This won the FIPRESCI prize when it screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The title intriguingly alludes to a famous line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian masterpiece of Soviet literature The Master and Margarita.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA)
Jim Jarmusch’s latest, a vampire film about centuries-old lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, received a lot of love at Cannes. Only Lovers Left Alive has been described as beautiful, poetic and funny, with — as is typical of Jarmusch — a wealth of allusions to the director’s favorite movies, music and literature. It has also been described as a tribute to the city and culture of Detroit where it was partially shot (and which Jarmusch has described as the “Paris of the Midwest”). Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-star.
Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)
Alain Guiraudie has won an ever-expanding cult of admirers since his feature debut Du soleil pour les gueux in 2001. In films like That Old Dream That Moves and No Rest for the Brave, he has crafted a singular style that combines Surrealism, homoeroticism, class observations and a nice feel for provincial locations in the southwest of France. Stranger By the Lake, a thriller set in a park known as a cruising spot for gay men, has upped his profile considerably: critics and audiences at Cannes responded favorably to its mix of sinister and erotic elements (including, apparently, unsimulated sex acts). This has already been picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing; given that distributor’s track record with CIFF (e.g., Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), it’s a good bet that this will turn up at the festival.
The Three Disasters (Godard, Switzerland)
The Three Disasters is a short film by Jean-Luc Godard that is one part of a triptych known as 3X3D (the other segments are directed by Peter Greenaway and Edgar Pera). Godard’s short was named by some critics as the best film to screen at Cannes in 2013 (when it played in the Critic’s Week sidebar). This is Godard’s first movie in 3-D and it has been described, somewhat confusingly, as some kind of rough draft for his forthcoming and long-gestating 3-D feature Goodbye to Language. The Three Disasters contains clips from other films (including Piranha 3-D!) in the manner of the director’s earlier Histoire(s) du Cinema and apparently takes James Cameron to task for using 3-D technology in an uninspired fashion. This is the film I’d most like to see play at CIFF; I fear it may be impossible to see in its proper stereoscopic version otherwise.
Venus in Fur (Polanski, France)
As with 2011’s Carnage, Venus in Fur is another stage-to-screen adaptation by Roman Polanski, although this one sounds as if it may be a return to more personal territory in terms of its content: it details the sadomasochistic relationship between a tyrannical theatrical director (Mathieu Amalric) and an actress (Emmanuelle Segnier, Polanski’s wife) who insists she is perfect for the lead role in his new play. In spite of the fact that he has lived and worked primarily in France since the late-1970s, this is the first time Polanski has directed a film in the French language. Expect great acting, sexual perversity and expert single-locale mise-en-scene.