According to Le Film Francais, Locarno took place this year “under the sign” of French and American cinema, but three films apiece out of twenty in the International Competition hardly amounts to a takeover. The implication could be that, in his second year as artistic director, Olivier Père (former Directors’s Fortnight supremo) has bought Cannes’ time-honoured formula of celebrity and cinephilia to bear on the Swiss festival. With Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and Gérard Depardieu passing through, there was a discernible upping of star-power, and the influence of classic French cinephilia remains evident in the Retrospective section: Minelli this year, Lubitsch last time. Who’s up next, I wonder?
Two of the French titles in Competition stood out for defiant singularity, bordering on the unclassifiable. I’m still trying to figure out Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche’s Smugglers’ Songs. Is it an 18th century French oater? A political parable about a clandestine life led in the margins of a revolutionary moment? It’s both of these and, in the tradition of the western, opts to ‘print the legend’ of the outlaw Louis Mandrin, a French Robin Hood executed by the Ancien Régime for smuggling. Ameur-Zaimeche doesn’t so much recount Mandrin’s story as follow in the footsteps of a band of former associates who aim to keep his rebel example alive by distributing printed copies of songs glorifying his exploits. This indirect, after-the-fact approach is enhanced by a telling use of anachronisms, with French North African actors playing the smugglers (Ameur-Zaimeche himself features as the leader of the gang). Thus declaring itself a historical drama that incorporates a critique of its own method, Smugglers Songs works at the gap between reconstruction and re-enactment, and the different visions of history implied in each: the former freezing the past in fetishistic detail, the latter bringing events alive in the present. But there’s nothing aridly meta here, the film remains grounded in a evocative sense of Provencal landscapes (shot with painterly care by Irina Lubtchansky), lavishes attention where due on the period detail of musical instruments and printing presses (philosopher Jean Luc Nancy pops up as an Enlightenment-friendly publisher), and proceeds with an overall lightness of touch (enhanced by the arch presence of French director Jacques Nolot as a sympathetic local aristocrat) that makes for an oddly charming experience.
Charms of a more occult kind are at work in Low Life, a supernatural-political love story by director-writer duo Nicolas Klotz and Elizabeth Perceval. Carmen (Camille Rutherford), a young student, falls for Hussain (Arash Naimian), an Afghan refugee who’s refused asylum and it’s around the resulting love triangle, involving Carmen’s ex-boyfriend, that the filmmakers weave an ambitious, otherworldly piece of cinema. With its voodoo rites and Tourneur-esque mood of possession, Low Life takes the uncanny atmosphere of their art-house hit Heartbeat Detector (07) and amplifies it into the film’s resonant bass note. The core of political horror that haunts the film concerns the treatment meted out to illegal immigrants by the French state, which is seen to recall the Vichy regime’s round-up of Jews, and when expulsion orders are issued (dubbed ‘death sentences’ by those on the receiving end) the film truly hits its stride in an extended hallucinatory sequence which mesmerised the audience I was in. From Cocteau to Garrel, there’s long been an intensely oneiric strain to French cinéma fantastique, of which Low Life is a powerful example. But what’s unique about Klotz and Perceval is how they succeed in combining this with fierce political intent. It won’t convince everybody but it put a spell on me.
The most anticipated American film in competition was Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, with its promising pairing of Gael Garcia Bernal and Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg as Alex and Nica, a pair of young Americans experiencing relationship stress while trekking in the Caucasus. The pairing might have looked good on paper but onscreen they’re outshone by Georgia’s top mountaineer, Bidzina Gujabidze, a non-professional actor who plays their guide Dato with lugubrious charisma. Loktev is evidently fascinated by her two stars but allows them far too much scope to moon about inconsequentially against stunning mountainous vistas and hence fail to engage the audience for long stretches. When a tangible threat prompts an ambiguous reaction from Alex it seems that the outside world might finally intrude, but the consequences are thrown away with off-handed bathos that disproves the old adage that short stories make for better films than novels (the film is adapted from a Tom Bissell story).
Loktev might be said to be working in the mode of festival filmmaking that the Brothers Dardenne inaugurated with Rosetta (99). Let’s call it ‘pedestrian realism’, in the sense that the filmmaker sticks close to a character as he or she footslogs it through the film’s terrain. It’s just that more accomplished takes on the genre than Loktev’s were also in competition, such as Massimiliano and Gianluca De Serio’s Seven Acts of Mercy, which follows – literally, and almost wordlessly – a young female immigrant in Italy acceding to a state of grace through various trials on an ironic if unapologetically Christian itinerary. Similarly, Sebastian Lelio’s Year of the Tiger unremittingly tracks its protagonist, an escaped prisoner voyaging through the disaster zone of the 2010 Chilean earthquake, but drab digital cinematography lets down an intriguing premise.
A final word about a small masterpiece. Screened out of competition, Jose Luis Guerin’s Memories of a Morning is one of three mid-length films commissioned by the Jeonju Festival’s ‘Digital Project’ (the others are by Claire Denis and Jean-Marie Straub). And while I understand that it owes something to Guerin’s feature length Work in Progress (01) – which I haven’t yet seen – Memories stands alone as a multum in parvo masterclass. From the simplest elements – light falling on a wall, a Bach partita, a subtitle from Proust, and the recollections of the filmmaker’s neighbours on a Barcelona street corner where a violinist named Manel jumped from a window and killed himself years before – Guerin constructs a beautiful meditation on life, death and the power of art. Attention: when it comes to the essay-film there’s another JLG in town!
Chris Darke – FILM COMMENT
(Nicolas Klotz & Elizabeth Perceval, France)
Memories of a Morning
(José Luis Guerin, Spain)
(Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche, France)
Seven Acts of Mercy
(Gianluca & Massimiliano De Serio, Italy)
(Valérie Massadin, France)
(Nadav Lapid, Israel)
(Alessandro Comodin, Italy)
(Fernand Melgar, Switzerland)
Goodbye First Love
(Mia Hansen-Love, France)
Back to Stay
(Milagros Mumenthaler, Argentina)