2007 TIFF Day 6

I don’t see much point in writing about Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light without mentioning the final scene, so consider this your warning: SPOILERS AHEAD. Both of Reygadas’s previous features, Japon and Battle in Heaven, use a subjective camera to achieve what I’ve developed the lazy habit of calling “Transcendence” — that is, they use formal means to represent cinematically the extra-worldly or extra-Rational or Metaphysical or whatever you want to call it. Silent Light is being praised as a significant departure for Reygadas — mostly, I suspect, because of its relative lack of transgression. But the bigger surprise to me is how staid, almost conventional, his camera has become. Silent Light is one of the most beautifully lensed films of the festival, and the opening and closing sequences are stunners, but Reygadas here dips less often into his impressive bag of aural and cinematographic tricks. Although I was actually a bit disappointed by this development (I like his tricks), that’s not a criticism. Rather, I see this as a transition work in which he is attempting to shift a heavier burden over to narrative and drama. And apparently he’s been revisiting the old masters for inspiration: Bresson, Bergman, and Tarkovsky are all over this film. And then there’s Dreyer, who Reygadas “covers” here by restaging the climax of Ordet. A remake of THE great moment of transcendence in all of film history?! The cajones of this guy. (See that? I used Spanish there.) Silent Light is a fascinating experiment, and it’s very likely a brilliant film, but I’m still processing. The climactic scene did not move me at all, and I’m genuinely curious to know why. From the opening moments of Battle in Heaven, the first of his films that I saw, I’ve trusted Reygadas completely, so I’m confident that Silent Light realizes his ambitions. I’m just not sure yet what, precisely, those ambitions are. Or, to put it even more bluntly, I don’t understand this film. I really don’t. And I can’t wait to see it again. One other throw away observation: With a few notable exceptions, the filmmakers to whom Reygadas is most indebted worked in the Academy ratio (4:3), and I can’t help but wonder what he would do with it. His ‘Scope compositions are gorgeous, of course, but they seemed to me too plastic at times here.

Contre Toute Esperance was my first encounter with Quebecoise filmmaker Bernard Emond. (Any pointers for tracking down his earlier work would be much appreciated.) Emond told us after the screening that it is the second film of a planned trilogy about the three Christian virtues: faith, hope, and charity. “I am not a believer,” he said, “but I cherish my Catholic tradition.” Contre Toute Esperance is an angry, political film that poses the questions, “How does one remain hopeful in a world turned by amoral market forces? And what role, if any, can the Christian tradition play in generating hope?” Contre Toute Esperance centers on Rejeanne Poulin, a woman who is forced to support her young husband after he suffers a stroke, only to lose her job at the telephone company where she works as an operator. The film plays like a bit of old fashioned Naturalism, with good people suffering (and suffering) the whims of an indifferent universe. Except that Emond creates, through formal gestures, a kind of holy space for his characters to inhabit. I can only imagine how many gallons of blue paint were sacrificed in the production of this film — the walls are blue, passing trucks are blue, clothes are blue, and the seas of blue are punctuated only by occasional bursts of deep red and purple. I suspect that the key to the film’s design is a brief scene in which Rejeanne visits a church to pray. In a high-angle shot, we look down on her kneeling at a pew, a long blue carpet running up the center aisle beside her. The entire world of the film, I think, exists symbolically within that church, making it (the world) a place of potential sacrifice, ritual, and dignity.

Another work by a young female director, Naissance des pieuvres is a fascinating coming-of-age story that revolves around a central metaphor so perfect I’m surprised it hasn’t been used before: synchronized swimming. We first meet the three central characters at a competition. Anne, overweight and brash, competes with the younger girls; Floriane, an early-developed beauty, captains the top team; and Marie, a gangly tomboy, watches intently from the bleachers, seduced by the beauty of it all. Much to her credit, first-time filmmaker Celine Sciamma takes advantage of the obvious symbolic resonances without stooping to sentiment. All team sports make ripe settings for teen films — the struggle to fit in while retaining one’s individuality and all that — but synchronized swimming amplifies the tropes. With their garish makeup and aggressive smiles, the girls are performing a kind of make-believe femininity akin to drag. And they’re doing it all in bathing suits, which expose, literally, the strange bodies that inevitably influence each girl’s sense of self. At the risk of sounding like a dirty old man, I’ll admit to a special fondness for coming-of-age films about girls, made by women directors. (I’d include Claire Denis’s Nenette et Boni, Lucretia Martel’s The Holy Girl, and Tamara Jenkins’s The Slums of Beverly Hills on my short list of favorites.) Adolescence was not a good time for me — I was “husky” (or so read the label on my corduroy pants) and had braces — but I was never so keanly aware of my body as are the girls in these films.