Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dublin Film Festival Report - 16th-19th February

Stuck in the Middle

Is the mountain climbing documentary a legitimate subgenre yet? Beyond the Edge (presented in 3D, for whatever reason) follows in the steps of Touching the Void and The Summit, this time recounting the story of the first two people to reach the peak of Everest in 1953. Using a mixture of documentary footage and recreation (plus liberal voiceover interviews), the film explores the subject in bland, uninspiring detail. It's all a bit of a trudge, the story interesting but the delivery dull. There is a beautiful 360 degree pan when the pair finally reach the peak, but that's a rare highlight in a film that is predominantly bog standard documentary fare that does little artistic justice to a remarkable story.

There are shades of George Washington and Mean Creek in Daniel Patrick Carbone's feature debut Hide Your Smiling Faces. In the aftermath of a death, two brothers in rural America confront issues of mortality, friendship and those dastardly adults. It's super serious and pensively paced, but it's a mostly well realised that has moments of poignancy and insight throughout. While ultimately not quite as effective as some of the films it reminded me of, it's admirable in its intentions. Carbone is clearly very passionate about the material, and this undoubtedly shines through.

Ida, meanwhile, closed the festival's first weekend for this viewer, while also serving as its most welcome surprise. I'm not familiar with Paweł Pawlikowski's previous work (My Summer of Love being his best known), but I'll be making sure to track them down after being thoroughly drawn into this film about an orphaned nun's journey to discover her roots. The story itself is intriguingly sparse - lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska is a wonderful screen presence (the eyes alone communicate a powerful sense of innocence and naivety), and her voyage of self discovery - aided by her alcoholic, cynical aunt (Agata Kulesza) - is represented with subtlety and grace. There's a welcome ambiguity about the film's mid twentieth century Polish setting, but the political and social contexts of the period (particularly the aftermath of the Holocaust) are intriguingly explored throughout.

Mostly, though, it's the visual presentation that stands out. Shot in black & white 4:3 (and making tremendous use out of that old-fashioned aspect ratio), the compositions make fascinating use of frame height and geometry. Through the cinematography, Pawlikowski and his DP transmit a sense of unease, place and often a grim sort of beauty. It's a film where every pretty much every cut signals an inventive new shot, and it's a feast for the eyes even if you're left cold by the purposefully pared-back narrative. For me, though, it was a delightfully complete package.

Circles (dir. Srdan Golubović) is one of the most plodding, narcoleptic films I've seen at this year's festival. The idea sounds more interesting written down than it is in execution. The film kicks off in 1993, with a Serbian soldier named Marko (Vuk Kostic) interrupting a violent incident in a town square. Suddenly, the film leaps forward a decade and a half, and focuses three people - separated by new borders - who were deeply affected by said incident. There's some interest in seeing how the puzzle slowly reveals itself, and the production values are high (yet bland). But the rewards are few, the stories numbingly familiar and the whole thing self-important to the point of parody. A heavy handed tale of geographical dislocation and interconnectedness that goes nowhere sloooowwww.

Wakolda (or The German Doctor, dir. Lucía Puenzo) is something of a contradiction: weird yet straightforward, serious yet ridiculous. And for some reason it kind of worked. Mostly, it caught me off guard (and maybe in a good mood): when the writer / director Puenzo introduced the film's setup - a mysterious vet (Àlex Brendemühl) becomes involved with an Argentinian-German family, taking a particular interest in young Wakolda (Florencia Bado) - I effectively had no idea where it was going. Was this 'doctor' a psychopath? A pedophile? The answer is actually stranger, the film instead tackling a pseudo-historical thriller that encompasses secret Nazi sects, genetic engineering and a certain real life mad scientist. It's an eccentric story that isn't exactly 'subtle' (a subplot about creating perfect dolls serves as a pretty blatant point of contrast), but it's strangely entertaining in its own quirky way.

The Past
The Past is another expertly crafted domestic melodrama from the great Asghar Farhadi, who I have in the past listed as perhaps my favourite contemporary filmmaker. This director is simply working on a completely different level to pretty much every other filmmaker these days - there's something so beautifully naturalistic, compassionate and unpretentious about his storytelling. He strips away the gloss to get to the powerful emotions at the centre of his dramas, and in the process explores his characters in a deeply intelligent and compelling way.

The story is deceptively simple - Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) travels to France to finalise his divorce with soon-to-be-ex wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). However, the scope of the film expands to include Marie's two daughters, her husband-to-be Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son. The startling revelations and personal conflicts flow thick and fast here, emerging naturally as the characters interact with each other. Most of said revelations pack a truly devastating punch, and I was completely drawn into this family's strife.

I can see some viewers suggesting it's too long and presents a pretty grueling number of revelations within revelations, but to me it was all absolutely necessary for Farhadi to take his characters and themes to where they need to go. It's the rare sort of melodrama that earns its explosive emotional outbursts. The title couldn't be more appropriate - it's a film about regrets, secrets, misunderstandings, mistakes and commitments, and getting consumed by what might or might not have happened once upon a time. Ultimately, it's about the challenges facing those who want to look forward and let go, with a final long take of Samir and his comatose wife being as articulate and heartbreaking as that unforgettable final shot from A Separation. The Past is intense and captivating viewing seeing these characters address their demons and release their pent up emotions, and it's flawlessly acted. Farhadi's films are, above all, deeply and immensely human, and this is a further example of his beautiful, peerless craftsmanship and empathetic storytelling.  

If The Past is about looking to the past and the future, Claire Simon's Gare Du Nord is about looking at what's around us - or, more specifically, what's around Paris' most iconic train station. Set pretty much entirely in the station itself, a quartet of main characters with their own stories serve as Simon's way of exploring the dizzying amount of characters and stories that briefly, anonymously intersect in this transport hub. The actual main dramas themselves can feel contrived and less engaging than the world that surrounds them - that the concept is more fascinating than the film itself is certainly a valid response here. However, as an example of 'one location' filmmaking that effortlessly encompasses a huge range of social contexts and personalities, Gare du Nord is often poetic and evocative.

Under the Skin
Finally, looks and glances are also an integral element to Under The Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer). I'm at something of a loss to describe how creepy, mysterious and effective the first half of this film is. I've barely seen anything like it, although there are hints of Kubrick (of all the compliments!) about it. From the slickly abstract prologue, it's an aesthetic treat and then some. The sound design grabs you (as does Mica Levi's unsettling score), the visuals truly hypnotise. From the uncomfortably intimate flirting sequences to a street scene that resembles a cinematic kaleidoscope, it's a remarkable sensory experience. There's a deeply dark and captivating sequence on a beach, that serves as a brilliant way of further introducing us to our odd protagonist and her removed perspective of our planet. But then there's a couple of scenes... I actually don't even want to mention them in any detail, because they're just so spectacular. There's one SFX heavy sequence that is pretty much unforgettable (and that sound design): scene of the year candidate already, and it scared the absolute shit out of me.

If we take the narrative at it's most literal level, it's fairly straightforward (although both the visuals and the events themselves intriguingly albeit ambiguously explore aspects of sexuality and gender in society) but it's magnificently crafted. It reminded me of Upstream Colour in a very good way - not in terms of specifics, necessarily, but in the way they use the tools of cinema so elegantly to tell their story. I believe the adaptation significantly cuts down the stuff from the book: I haven't read it, but at the Q&A afterwards Glazer said he only used the book as a starting point. So it's that rare but wholly admirable sort of smart adaptation that aggressively distills or even strips a literary source down to its most cinematic elements, adapting ideas, themes and characters rather than just lazily recycling the plot itself.

There's very little in the way of exposition or extraneous dialogue, and having the meaning and specifics of key aspects left very vague is one of the film's strongest assets in building its surreal and deeply mysterious tone. Scarlett Johannson in a very often speechless role - the polar opposite of her Her performance, but no less memorable - is fantastic: managing to convey an alien figuring out the rules of Earth, with an intense stare that's a key part of the film's narrative and visual signature. Indeed, it's a film about 'looking' more often than not - at others and at ourselves, albeit in this case through a pair extraterrestrial eyes. In fact, one of the opening shots is tellingly an eye, and many of the turning points of the film revolve around the alien having her perspective altered by simply looking or examining something. This isn't so much a male or female gaze being explored here (although it naturally touches on that), but something far richer.

The second half is, well... different. The 'action' shifts from Glasgow to the countryside, and the tone changes. Our alien begins to empathise or at least becomes increasingly curious about humanity and herself. The change is a tad jarring at first, to be honest. I wondered where this was going for a while, but I felt Glazer nailed the landing. In many ways the film's second section further explores the ideas and themes articulated in the first half through contrasting situations, leading to a powerful conclusion. There's some fascinating scenes (including a seemingly tender sexual encounter with a blackly comic punchline), although it's not until the final minutes we get haunting imagery on par with the best from the first hour.

Above all, Under the Skin is a film about mood, and Glazer is brave enough to supplement a stripped down, ambiguous narrative with evocative and sometimes provocative delivery. It's going to be divisive, no doubt about that. But it's one of the most captivating and distinctive pieces of cinema I've seen in recent times.

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