The 48th edition of New Directors/New Films runs March 27th – April 7th. For our first of two dispatches, we tackle the second feature from Canadian filmmaker Philippe Lesage (Genesis); a “deceptively minimalist” debut from a Mexican actress-turned-filmmaker (The Chambermaid); a Turkish love story spun on its head (Belonging); and others. Look for our second dispatch next week.
Update (April 6, 2019): For the fourth consecutive year, Festival Scope and New Directors/New Films have teamed up to bring audiences a selection of films playing at the festival. Ten films will be screening on Festival Scope’s site, including three films covered in this dispatch: Mark Jenkin’s Bait, Burak Çevik’s Belonging, and Andrea Bussmann’s Fausto. Only 200 free tickets are available per film on a first-come-first-served basis. The films will only be available from April 8 – April 22, and only in the United States. Festival Scope is dedicated to bringing films fresh from prestigious international festivals to film lovers all over the world. They’re one of our very favorite platforms.
Director Mark Jenkin’s Bait is a fascinating curiosity. As a drama, it’s fairly basic, but also mostly effective: Martin & Steven Ward (Edward Rowe & Giles King), fishermen in Cornwall, England, butt heads with vacationing yuppies Tim and Sandra Leigh (Simon Sheperd & Mary Woodvine), who have purchased the Wards’ former home and most of a residential block, thus acting as landlords to other wealthy seaside vacationers. This kind of gentrification is almost universally recognizable at this point, and while Martin is surly and argumentative, and Tim is mostly a smug prick, Jenkin gives both families reasonable grounds for their ongoing conflict. Less compelling is the younger generation, as Steven’s boy Neil (Isaac Woodvine) courts the Leighs’ daughter (Mary Woodvine), much to her brother’s dismay. That blunt melodrama ends in a contrived bit of accidental violence that stands in sharp contrast to the relatively nuanced exploration of fiscal tensions found elsewhere in Jenkin’s film. Regardless, Bait’s virtues have less to do with narrative than with cinematic craft. The film is a compelling visual object, first and foremost: Acting as his own cinematographer, and editor, Jenkin shot the movie on 16mm, using an old Bolex camera, and hand processed the negative himself. The film’s images are rough and grainy, with high contrast, inky blacks, and incandescent patches of white that flit in-between the frames. Absolutely beautiful to look at, the film functions almost as an unearthed relic. Jenkin is an accomplished editor as well, creating odd rhythms by holding shots a beat or two longer than would be typical or, instead of traditional coverage, filming the actors and actions with multiple cameras or multiple takes, and then using continuity cutting to stitch together the scene. Jenkin approaches the shot as an individual unit, a unique, specific image — and he stacks those images all together, creating meaning through the resulting juxtapositions. This is real classic Eisensteinian montage stuff, and it looks and feels somehow unique, despite the obvious historical antecedent. Everything old is new again — and this resolutely old fashioned technique has now become experimental, even avant-garde. Jenkin is making a direct connection between his handcrafted way of making cinema and the old fashioned ways of the fisherman (both are dying breeds). We might not be able to stop progress, but there is still value, and beauty, in the old ways. Daniel Gorman
Belonging opens with a voice-over delivering an admission of guilt, one coldly articulated by Onur (Çaglar Yalçinkaya), as he hastily divulges the details surrounding the murder of his lover’s mother. As Onur flies through the harrowing details of this crime’s inception, and its aftermath (how he met said lover, Pelin (Eylül Su Sapan), and quickly rejected her; their eventual reconciliation and volatile relationship; and finally, their plan to remove the domineering matriarch), topographical images of where each of these key scenes took place haunt the screen, usually with little-to-no action occuring in the foreground of each shot. Much like the opening sequence of James Benning’s Landscape Suicide, the desolate terrains of Burak Çevik’s film begin to impose themselves on the audience, with each shot lasting upwards of two to three minutes. Then, at about the halfway point of the film, things radically change in terms of framing and pacing. Belonging slows to a crawl, and Çevik recontextualizes the story we’ve heard so far. We see Onur and Pelin’s meeting — fully dramatized, with the previous narration now gone — and recognize two social outcasts drawn together. The two waste the night away, talking about their personal lives and failed relationships — and are oblivious to the homicide that they will later organize together. This is a jarring, though ultimately ineffective aesthetical shift: once one understands Çevik’s intentions (to untangle the objective facts of this situation from the emotional manipulation with which film can provide such narratives), Belonging quickly runs out of ideas. The film ends by returning to Onur’s detached voice, trying to express some level of thematic closure by suggesting Pelin should be let off the hook, because she’s still just a child, matching the depiction we’ve been given in the film’s previous section. It’s a conclusion that aims for profundity — again, identifying how easily audiences can be manipulated — but it’s a dismayingly predictable endpoint for the film’s one compelling idea. Paul Attard
So what exactly ‘begins’ in Philippe Lesage’s Genesis? That’s a question that’s almost too deceptively simple to answer: love, of course (the film’s poster even presents its principle characters, Noée Abita’s Charlotte and Theodore Pellerin’s Guillaume, in the shape of an ‘L’), though unsurprisingly, this is a love that’s difficult to maintain. Lesage in fact brings attention to this by opening Genesis east of Eden, rather than in the garden itself, its characters living in the aftermath of innocence. The film’s dual structure initially follows the respective, fledgling relationships of Charlotte and Guillaume — siblings, whose naivete and innocence become apparent as they meet the inescapable dangers and subtle manipulations of the surrounding world. Lesage achieves both of these extremes through an exacting mise-en-scène that repeatedly centers his protagonists in the frame, and employs static shots and extended duration to great effect — particularly in the most startling moments, as when a character makes a strikingly miscalculated and earnest declaration of romantic feeling, or when another character becomes victim to the lures of city nightlife and drinking culture. In these scenes, the powerhouse performances help articulate the extent of the forces that are ‘striking at the heels’ of the characters. And then comes Genesis’s second act, which serves as a radical departure from the first, and its latent cruelties; it serves as a (possibly atemporal) return to Eden. At this point, one could then reasonably ask: what is it that ‘begins’ here? And that question would be more difficult to answer — it’s hard to even comprehend Lesage’s intentions. Is this part of Genesis a retroactive, even mythical, affirmation of innocence? Is it an oblique warning, something like ‘protect one’s burgeoning moments of longing for another’? Or does this epilogue’s youthful, heterosexual romance betray Genesis? Following an opening that saw the protagonists’ attempts at non-traditional relationships and loves so completely dashed, this critique is a fair one. But Lesage’s sophomore feature ultimately furthers what’s proving to be a promising and thoughtful career — even as the film struggles under the weight of its lofty ambitions. Matt McCracken
Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s low-key, documentary-style drama MS Slavic 7 is about a young woman, Audrey (Campbell), who discovers her late, great-grandmother Zofia Bohdanowiczowa’s passionate letters to a Polish poet. Primarily set in the archive where the letters are stored, the film follows Audrey as she reads, examines, and interprets Zofia’s letters, often speaking her thoughts aloud to an off-screen interlocutor. The filmmakers seem mostly interested in conveying the experience, and the process, of literary analysis: MS Slavic 7 opens with an invitation for us to read a poem meant for Zofia, and throughout we see shots of actual letters, accompanied by commentary from Campbell’s Audrey. The film generally refrains from over-explicating subjectivities, so we’re often left with a mysterious image of Audrey thinking over the meaning of the letters, appearing a model scholar — with a reserved temperament and slightly opaque demeanor. But as MS Slavic 7 proceeds, the reasons for this ambivalence are gradually revealed: Audrey’s attempts to further her work have been frustrated by bureaucratic mischief. We find out that although she is the literary executor of Zofia’s estate, the letters have been mishandled by her aunt (Elizabeth Rucker), a bourgeois type who doesn’t share her academic or personal interests in the materials, and who exhibits a condescending, antagonizing attitude toward this project. The archive, too, is reluctant to give up its materials without going through a presumably lengthy legal process — and so Audrey’s work is seriously forestalled. Still, the filmmakers here mostly elide the drama of estate wrangling, favoring a Chantal Akerman-like approach that views moments of the mechanical processes of work, and subtly contrasts these with scenes in a hotel room, where Audrey gets dressed and makes coffee, or with scenes at a social function, where she is a passive observer. The emotional life of this character is depicted in a fragmented way — but it gradually becomes the focal point here, and the passionate content of Zofia’s letters echos, or suggests, certain elements of this inner life. A surprise romantic encounter at the conclusion, then, at once confirms and reconfigures our understanding of this point, as the directors leave us with an ambiguous contrast between the worlds of unabashed passion and displicined, scholarly inquiry. Tony G. Huang
The Chambermaid, the first feature from actress-turned-theater-director-turned filmmaker Lila Aviles, centers on Eve (Gabriela Cartol), a luxury hotel cleaning lady working in Mexico City. Part of that précis may sound familiar. But similarities mostly end there: While Roma’s central figure was an idealized, saintly figure with a hazy backstory — viewed through a lens of monochrome nostalgia — The Chambermaid, set in the Mexico City of present day, views its main character with a much more observant, documentary-like style. And while Alfonso Cuaron drew upon childhood memories for his film, Aviles prepared for hers by spending several years following actual hotel cleaning ladies, an experience she parlayed into a stage play, La Camarera. Aviles also drew inspiration from artist Sophie Calle’s Hotel, an account of that author’s experiences working as a hotel maid. All this adds up to an evident emphasis on detail in The Chambermaid, which serves the film’s deceptively minimalist, elegantly shot style. Mundane tasks are prominently emphasized: changing sheets, scrubbing toilets and tubs, vacuuming floors. And because the maids are supposed to be unobtrusive, near invisible, Eve habitually apologizes each time she enters a guest’s occupied room. Eve is confined to these rooms, only glimpsing the outside world through the large windows showing mountain vistas in the distance. Another contrast with Cuaron’s film: Aviles gives her material a more potent political edge, as Eve’s attempts to improve her circumstances are thwarted by higher powers (her GED class is shut down by the union and she’s denied a promotion to work the VIP penthouse suite). This lack of reward for following the rules — and her sacrificing of long hours that could’ve been spent with her young son — occasions the one expression of anger that the calm, implacable Eve allows herself. But when one is as marginalized and invisible as Eve is, raging against the machine does nothing to keep it from running. Christopher Bourne
Frequently inscrutable and often enveloped in literal darkness, Andrea Bussmann’s Fausto offers the latest (cinematic) rumination on the foundational myth of man’s dealings with the devil. Mostly filmed along Mexico’s Oaxacan coast, the movie offers vistas shrouded in mystery — landscapes seemingly untouched by time and flush with a sense of the unknowable. Like the director’s previous feature, The Tales of Two Who Dreamt (co-directed with Nicolás Pereda), Fausto is a collection of oral histories and local legends all subtly, obliquely linked to the origin tale. Ghosts and shadowy figures loom large in the tellings of various interlocutors; animals and their distinct perceptual faculties figure prominently as well. Throughout the film, hazy low-light images (shot on digital, then rephotographed on 16mm) continually ask the viewer to remain open to the “conscious coexistence” of the universe. And yet, despite Bussmann’s considered intellectual framework, there’s an unproductive tedium to her approach, which often shrouds its most direct ideas (e.g. the way cinema defaults to human modes of perception) with coy suggestion and limiting obfuscation. (“What is the difference between man and dog?” a man asks in voice-over. “Here, they are the same.”) Fausto’s key image is of a single point of light, flashing in and out of inky blackness; but its lingering impression is of a formless haze. Lawrence Garcia