The 35th Vancouver International Film Festival wrapped on October 14th, capping a two–week marathon of cinema gorging. This third and final dispatch covers two acclaimed holdovers from the Locarno Film Festival, The Dreamed Path and The Human Surge; films from Eugene Green (Son of Joseph) and Hong Sangsoo (Yourself and Yours); a writer biopic, Nelly, from French-Canadian director Anne Emond; the Cannes competition title Staying Vertical, from Stranger by the Lake director Alain Guiraudie; and Keith Maitland’s documentary about the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings.
One great pleasure of festival viewing is the possibility of being completely surprised (and flummoxed) by something you’ve never seen before. That certainly applies for me when it comes to Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path, which presents itself as a ‘two viewings necessary’ film. It’s not too difficult to say what happens here, on a plot level, but the German director’s fragmented images and distinctive editing patterns are at once maddening and beguiling, resisting easy affect and resolution (and in some cases just basic comprehension). The opening scenes introduce a couple, Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) and Theres (Miriam Jakob), vacationing in Greece in the 1980s. After following the dissolution of their relationship, the film leaps forward to follow a different couple—a man and wife who’re struggling to keep their marriage together. This is the kind of film for which explicit “meaning” is an afterthought; the instinctive experience of viewing The Dreamed Path—of engaging with the images and sensations flowing from the screen—is far more essential. The twin strands of the plot are pared down until only an essence of their emotions remain. One could call the film Bressonian (the French director’s influence is certainly here), but Schanelec’s approach feels entirely her own. This is a challenging film, to be sure, but one that seems likely to reward a second look.
Eduardo Williams’s debut feature, The Human Surge, may well also benefit from a second look, but it doesn’t incentivize one. That’s certainly not for lack of ambition: Structured in three parts, the film opens in Argentina, eventually moving to Mozambique and then finally to the Philippines, following the lives of a few young men (and some women) in each location. These people work menial jobs, mill about aimlessly, and in one case, engage in sex acts for an online webcam show. All the while, Williams’s handheld camera keeps its distance, hovering and observing like a disembodied specter. To his credit, this detached mode of remains committed to throughout. And that’s interesting enough for a while, but The Human Surge quickly begins to feel tedious. It may not be conceptually wan; ideas on globalization, interconnectedness, human labor, and much more, swirl about and in its images (captured using a different format for each section). But more often than not, ideas are only suggested, not developed, and are curiously divorced from Williams’s overall formal approach. Two jaw-dropping transitions bridge the three parts (a computer screen makes a leap from Buenos Aires to Maputo, Mozambique; a dive into an anthill relocates the camera from Maputo to the island of Bohol, Philippines), but otherwise, The Human Surge elicits only minimal engagement. Williams shows unmistakable talent behind the camera, and what he attempts is both bold and ambitious, as a debut should be. But the overall result remains something of a disappointment.
The same could be said of Nelly, a biopic on novelist Nelly Arcan (born Isabelle Fortier). Directed by Anne Émond (who made the excellent, underseen Our Loved Ones), the film flashes between various periods in Arcan’s life and enactments of her novels, which draw from personal experience. It’s a familiar idea—exploring the way life informs art and vice versa—but not one that Émond complicates or enlivens much; she often lingers on the tawdrier material of Arcan’s novels, such as the scene of a sex worker leaping off a building to escape an abusive client. There’s a performative element here that keeps things from being entirely dull, but the overall structure (which was the most audacious element of Our Loved Ones) feels desperate rather than well-judged. Émond’s talent seeps through into the margins, particularly in the physicality of her camera and her use of music as a narrative hook, while Arcan’s talents as a writer don’t fare quite so well. For those already interested in the novelist’s work, Nelly will undoubtedly hold some interest; the uninitiated will find less to appreciate.
Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo also has an established, idiosyncratic form for his films—as signified by Minjung (Lee Youyoung) sighing “Here we go again” during her first on-screen fight with boyfriend Youngsoo (Kim Joohyck), early in the prolific director’s latest, Yourself and Yours. To be sure, this has all the hallmarks of a “Hong movie”: drunken antics, social awkwardness, and romantic messiness. But the film still manages to feel fresh. Following that initial fight, during which Minjung denies Youngsoo’s accusation that she got drunk with another man, the two decide to spend some time apart. If the film is more difficult to get a handle on than Hong’s others, that’s because it lacks an immediately recognizable hook, employing neither the clear bifurcation of Right Now, Wrong Then nor the jumbled (a)chronology of Hill of Freedom. There is a hook, though, which is the number of recognitions (or mis-recognitions) of Minjung (or a Minjung lookalike) by various men, all of whom Minjung claims not to know. (In one instance, she passes herself off as her own twin.) Hong cannily never clarifies the root of this confusion, which means that the film works as amusingly comedic, darkly realistic and lightly surrealist, all at once. But on first viewing, Yourself and Yours is not as funny as Hong’s other films—the confrontations are more caustic, the fights uglier. The film accretes surprising emotional and thematic force, navigating the notion of self and identity—particularly within the context of a relationship—in a way that may even bring to mind Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. The act of altering oneself for a partner, of navigating the space between familiarity and estrangement, of bridging the “first” and the umpteenth time—all gain such prickly resonance within the final few scenes, which show either a reconciliation of the old relationship, a forming of a new one, or some strange uncertain mix of the two. “Knowing is not as important as we think,” says Minjung at one point. There’s pleasure in the puzzle—and one might do well to just embrace this enigma.
Likewise, for Alain Guiraudie’s relentlessly weird Staying Vertical, there may not be anything to do except surrender to the strangeness. The story follows the peripatetic Léo (Damien Bonnard), a screenwriter suffering from writer’s block, as he explores the southwestern French countryside. He meets a shepherdess (with whom he forms a relationship, and then immediately has a child); her father (who eventually makes a pass at him); and a young man (who serves as the caretaker of an elderly grouch that likes to blast Pink Floyd from his living room). Throughout, Guiraudie maintains a digressive style that gives the pastoral story a mythic, borderline surrealist air, ruminating on themes of urbanity and provincialism, human connection, and familial responsibility with the (il)logic of a dream. “There is no script,” says Leo, after being hounded by his editor, a phrase that some might derisively throw back at the film in frustration. Granted, Staying Vertical’s structure isn’t exactly perfect. Its relentless strangeness is often difficult to latch onto, and the various narrative strands don’t quite come together as naturally as one would hope. But there’s an overall design that’s cannier (if not necessarily more effective) than a more straightforward treatment of similar themes would be. As obliquely suggested by its title, Staying Vertical is an exploration of what it means to be human, to stay on one’s two feet, alert and open to the world—and while not everything about the film may work, with the magnificent ending, at the very least, Guiraudie delivers on that concept.
Whether one enjoys Son of Joseph will depend on how well one takes to Eugene Green‘s very particular style. Favoring declamatory acting, controlled framing and editing, and a no-nonsense visual scheme, Green is as distinctive and out of step with contemporary filmmaking as ever here. Rather than update an archaic story for modern times (as the title might suggest), Son of Joseph filters a modern story—of Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), the son of a single mother trying to look for his father—through various literary, biblical and classical allusions (such the Carvaggio painting “The Sacrifice of Isaac” that features prominently in Vincent’s room). Divided into five parts (each preceded by a title card with some Biblical reference), Son of Joseph follows Vincent as he looks for his father, Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a prominent publisher, against the wishes of his mother Marie (Natacha Régnier). In the process, he ends up meeting Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), Oscar’s brother, with whom he immediately establishes a close rapport (though neither of them know how they’re related). The story’s (emotional) endpoint is not hard to discern, but it’s the amusing, oddball details of the journey—including a ditsy literary blogger (the comic highlight), a donkey, and a climactic escape to the seaside (in a section titled “The Flight to Egypt”)—that captivate. Offsetting its deep emotional currents with a touch of levity, Son of Joseph builds to a terse, quietly moving conclusion, and lets its gentle, unassuming rhythms speak volumes.
Keith Maitland’s Tower continues this year’s streak of excellent documentaries. The film concerns the deadly mass shooting that occurred on August 1, 1966 from the top of the University of Texas clock tower. Splicing together rotoscoped animation with more traditional documentary elements—archival footage, old photos, radio recordings—Maitland’s meticulously researched film unfolds with a present-tense urgency that focuses on the various people whose lives were shaken that day (almost entirely ignoring the shooter and his motivations). It’s an unexpected approach given the media’s tendency to zero-in on the perpetrators of such events, but one that’s incredibly bracing and moving precisely because Maitland refuses that base impulse. The kinetic animation and editing (somewhat paradoxically) make the events even more moving than a traditional documentary would be. (There’s a scene involving Rita Starpattern—a woman who risked her life to help Claire Wilson, one of the shooting victims who was pregnant at the time—that one would be hard-pressed not to sob through.) Maitland does shoehorn in a bit of political didacticism towards the end, which is all the more disappointing since his film had already—by intentional omission—so gracefully addressed those hot-button issues. But that’s a quibble in the context of such an empathetic, beautifully composed testament to human courage and kindness.