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.