Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Low Life and Almayer's Folly

By Phil Coldiron

…and may they hurry up, abandon the horrendous classist denomination of students and become young intellectuals…

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Apology

If immigration has turned out to be the festival's de facto theme, then surely Nicolas Klotz and Elizabeth Percival's Low Life must be the film of the festival (though not of the year, that goes to Bertrand Bonello's staggering House of Tolerance). A film that's nearly as unfashionably direct in its romance and politics as Philippe Garrel's That Summer, Low Life is many things—a study of the struggle of bourgeois youths to truly engage in revolutionary activity, a catalogue of the terrors wrought by Nicolas Sarkozy's idiotic national identity, an excavation of the physical spaces where change must arise from, and a reminder that love and revolution are inextricable—and it does them all well.

Shot on the Canon 1D DSLR, the film's perpetual twilight evokes a space between the late films of Robert Bresson and Pedro Costa's digital works (logical: Klotz made a film in 2001 featuring Costa and Jean-Luc Nancy, whose influence also weighs heavily here), a painterly light that makes thrilling use of grays, browns, and oranges in envisioning a world tangential to our own, one where the failure of revolution is not viewed as a foregone conclusion. Klotz, who handles the pair's visuals (Percival handles writing and the direction of the actors, most of them here nonprofessionals), conceives every domestic space as hidden—quite literally: a labyrinthine squatters' den and a concealed room in a student apartment—refuges from the world of perpetual conflict that burns outside. This burrowed in spatial sense compliments the numerous layers of Percival's highly allusive script, which moves from a wide angle view of the total student-immigrant-police situation in to a close-up of two student lovers, Carmen (Camille Rutherford) and sans papiers Hussain (Arash Naimian).

Low Life opens with a tertiary character reciting lines from a depressive Ophelia in Heinrich Müller's Hamletmachine (a reworking of Shakespeare's text into a democratic mechanism for producing multiple, equal versions of the play), serving the double purpose of establishing the romantic tone and limning its political thought, a Straubian commitment to looking back rather than slavishly progressing. It climaxes, in a fitting contrast, in an interrogation room at the hypermodern headquarters of the Lyon police, a sleek space choking in visual information: Charlotte first is made to watch surveillance footage capturing her with Hussain in an effort to coerce her to turn him in (she responds bravely by turning to the past, invoking Vichy's actions toward the Jews in a chilling parallel with Sarkozy's attitude toward immigration), and we then see her in a holding cell viewed across six staggered monitors, an Eisensteinian decomposition of movement creeping in and hacking away at the unity of the State's vision.

Klotz and Percival have created a film that seems impossible to even conceive of in America today, one that truly believes in the desire of youth to alter history for the better. In the end, Hussain and Charlotte both must disappear for their love; perhaps they cannot be together now, but the resistance will live in each of them. The hope of a brighter day remains.

Phil Coldiron

16 Septembre 2011

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