Dir. by Christian Petzold
Every other contemporary director of traditional narrative films would do well to study Petzold. From shot to shot, cut to cut, Barbara is smart, precise, classical filmmaking at its best. There are no radical or self-conscious gestures in his style — most sequences boil down to some variation on establishing shot / medium shot / closeup / point of view — which here drops us into the secretive perspective of the title character, a doctor (Nina Hoss) who has been relocated by East German authorities to a provincial seaside town. Barbara conforms to all the plot conventions of the “beautiful stranger” genre, which makes the final act — and the final shot, in particular — a bit too neat for my tastes, but the pleasures are all in the filmmaking. There are no clues given about the location of the town, but in the recurring, fairy-tale-like images of Nina Hoss bicycling through the woods, the trees are always being blown by strong gusts, and seagulls can be heard around her; there’s no actual mention of the sea until the film is almost over. A colleague who visits Barbara’s apartment asks if she plays the piano, but, again, we don’t actually see the instrument in her room until a scene late in the film. Petzold’s precision allows him to create a world with suggestions.
Dir. by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul
Mekong Hotel is a small film. It feels homemade, even by Apitchatpong’s small-scale standards. But I found it really moving, especially the final few minutes, when the ghosts that have haunted so much of Apitchatpong’s recent work are embodied by a mother and daughter, who mourn for all of the mothers and daughters who have been lost in Thailand’s tragic past. “Daughter, I miss you,” she says. “I hate that my life has become this,” she says. Apitchatpong has a kind of super-human sensitivity and attentiveness to beauty and sorrow. I’m beginning to think of him as the other side of the David Lynch coin.
Big in Vietnam
Dir. by Mati Diop
It’s a stupid comparison, I know, but this is the messy, ambitious, visually inventive film I wanted Tabu to be. When an actor disappears into the woods while filming a low-budget adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, the Vietnamese director walks off the shoot and goes wandering through the city (Marseille?) until she finds a karaoke bar and meets a man, also Vietnamese, of her generation. Diop then crosscuts between the film shoot, now being directed by the woman’s son, and images of the woman and man as they talk and walk among French sunbathers. When writing about Big in Vietnam, I feel obligated to preface every statement with “presumably.” The 25-minute film is elliptical to the extreme, and the thematic connections are never made explicit. Diop has apparently received funding to expand this idea into feature length. I can’t wait to see it. Big in Vietnam is my favorite film of the festival so far, and by a fairly wide margin.
Dir. by Ben Wheatley
I suspect I’ll end up writing at length about Sightseers in a few weeks, when I have more time. It’s an interesting and well-made film that I might have liked more had I not seen it with an audience that laughed loudly at every brutal killing. I don’t blame them for laughing. The film is designed for laughs. But if I’d watched it alone, it would have been a straight-up horror film, and if I can convince myself that it’s all in the service of a coherent allegory — working-class anger is the best bet — then I might also convince myself it’s a very good film. This is the first Ben Wheatley film I’ve seen, and I really like his visual style. I’m eager to see what he does next.
Dir. by Darezhan Omirbayev
Several critics I admire and whose tastes are similar to my own are big fans of Student, a concentrated, mostly-silent adaptation of Crime and Punishment (or Pickpocket or American Gigolo or L’Enfant, depending on your point of reference) from Kazakhstan. For now, I’m content to sit on any judgment of the film until I’ve had time to read their reviews. The title character is a brooding, non-verbal Raskolnikov, even by comparison to Bresson’s Michel, and for the first hour of the film, Omirbayev’s visual strategy — watching the student walk, zombie-like, stoop-shouldered, through town — left too much unsaid. But after the murder, as the accumulating guilt begins to spawn fantasies, the slow buildup pays dividends. More to come on this one . . .
I’ll cover the Wavelengths shorts programs later, after I’ve had time to watch them again.