by InRO Staff Film

Before We Vanish | May 2020: Liberté, Fourteen, The Trip to Greece

May 31, 2020
Photo: Film at Lincoln Center

OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s new monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen. | As large pockets of the world begin to reopen (perhaps ill-advisedly, but that’s not for us to determine), we at In Review Online also begin to re-ramp up our regular duties. While we skipped Before We Vanish in April due to a lack of cinematic content, we’re back for May, tackling films that while receiving no theatrical runs, fit the BWV modus and scored virtual releases, including: Albera Serra’s Liberté; the latest (and potentially last) entry in The Trip series; the U.S. release of Beanpole director Kantemir Balagov’s debut, Closeness; and a film titled Porno, among others.


Liberté

Albert Serra’s Liberté continues the director’s penchant for placing human rot, literal and metaphorical, within the garish trappings and knowing artifice of re-creation. Presented here are the wanton sexual and violent revels of a brood of exiled French libertines, over the course of a single night, bewigged and powdered bodies splayed amidst dense forestry and within aristocratic carriages. This group is intent on exporting their freethinking philosophy of hedonism to Germany, with the help of the Duc de Walchen (Helmut Berger). But on this night, they’re also just here to party. Serra has long favored elaborate staticism, the baroque frills of late 18th century Europe dominant in his frames, and that remains much the same in Liberté,. The director’s approach is painterly; he crafts nightmare compositions of a forest blanketed by night’s dark, the branches like webs, shadows both obscuring and exposing. Silhouettes are glimpsed through bramble, and moon and stars light upon hidden figures and open-air copulations. Also made evident here is the kinship between Serra’s instincts and a certain Brechtian theatricality: Liberté, offers a refinement of the way Serra uses sound and space. Sonics mostly consist of chirruping birds and the buzzing of insects, with dry grass crunching underfoot, whispered arousals, and literal ass-whippings constituting the din of action.

In an early wide shot, a gently swaying forest is patiently captured a beat too long, before figures emerge on tiptoe like ghosts from the wood, an ominousness felt in their deliberate movements and in the suggestion of the hidden depths from which they emerged. Even despite the density of color and shape in this scene, Dogville still feels like the closest touchstone: the dimensionality wrought in this sequence is reminiscent of Von Trier’s affect, while the positive space also slowly transitions to negative space, reorienting the viewer’s gaze in real time. The shots here are undeniably gorgeous, but haunted and sometimes menacing as well. And while retaining the familiar medium and long shots of Serra’s previous flms, the camera too takes on a different personality: in a mirroring of its subjects, it often plays voyeur to voyeurs (and likewise invites the viewer into another level of such behavior), spying on foliage-obscured figures and capturing incomplete images of fleshly entanglements, masochism, and erotic frustrations. That Serra marries his images with Sadeian carousels feels inevitable, his portrait of humanity’s murkiness and inscrutability fittingly set within the similarly mercurial but beautiful natural world. Ultimately, this is more presentation than study: we are treated to both broad and subtle dramatics, with extreme sexual acts captured at a similar rate as fleeting glances of boredom or anxiety, and little else is done to suggest any cogent thesis. But if the freedom implied in the title of Serra’s latest remains unsettled at credits’ roll – and it does, the themes never really parsed out – that feels largely by impish design, and in embrace of that freedom. Luke Gorham


Fourteen

Audiences aren’t exactly suffering from a dearth of small scale indie dramas these days; after all, there’s a reason ‘Sundance-approved’ is frequently used as a pejorative designation rather than a descriptor. Dan Sallitt‘s new film, Fourteen, is a bracing example of this oft-tedious genre done right. As critic Steve Erickson has pointed out, Sallitt has dedicated different films to both Eric Rhomer and Maurice Pialat, and Fourteen represents a kind of synthesis between these two otherwise contradictory influences, simultaneously tender and incisively cutting. Tracing the tumultuous friendship of Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) over the course of roughly a decade, Sallitt uses keen, subtle observation and frequent, sometimes brutal ellipses to document the gradual unraveling of the relationship. Mara is the stable friend, a teacher’s aide who is going to grad school and writes fiction in her free time. Jo is the free-spirited wild child, a social worker who wants to do good but keeps losing jobs and is prone to mood swings. Fourteen revels in the quotidian, fleshing out the details of this friendship through the accumulation of everyday incidents, constructing moments out of small gestures and body language (truly, Medel and Kuhling are remarkable performers). Mara and Jo go to bars, talk about work, and meet each other’s significant others. Sallitt’s true gift is in capturing the rhythm of casual, unaffected conversation and how it can obliquely reveal character — the highly stylized writing and directing here is all the more remarkable for not calling attention to itself.

It is only gradually that we realize time is marching inexorably forward, as a new boyfriend pops up, someone has a new hairstyle, another job is lost, or a character finds out they’re pregnant. At one point Mara mentions that she hasn’t seen Jo in several weeks, the first real indication of how much time has elapsed with a simple edit. Sallitt makes the viewer retroactively reassess certain scenes, crafting confrontations or revealing new information, and then relying on the audience to make sense of it. The film builds to a pair of emotional climaxes, spaced years apart within the narrative proper. In the first, Jo breaks down and reveals a desperately self-aware understanding of her tumultuous psyche, trying and failing to self-diagnose where exactly her mind betrayed her. In the second, Mara is telling her own young daughter exactly how she and Jo met back in middle school. Eventually, Jo and Mara meet again (a chance encounter that happens all the time in big cities) in an excruciating scene that will be familiar to anyone who’s lost contact with a once-close friend. They exchange pleasantries, then part with promises to get together soon and keep in touch. And while the gesture seems genuine enough in the moment, we know it will never come to pass. As in life, tragedy soon follows, and while it’s not exactly a surprise, it’s still a gut punch. Sallitt ends the film with a tearful apology, turning the film into a portrait of quietly devastating regret. Life goes on, and we carry on. Daniel Gorman


The Trip to Greece

The Trip to Greece, purportedly the closing installment of the TV series/film hybrid directed by Michael Winterbottom, is permeated by that sensation of finality. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, once again playing deformed and exaggerated versions of themselves, are here in a country that feels pervaded by both history and death. It’s no wonder then that this ends up being the least overtly funny of the Trip films, focusing on grimmer subjects and experiences associated with middle-aged men: failed marriages, the death of parents, rekindling seemingly stagnated relationships. The series has largely been a comedic showcase for the talents of Brydon and Coogan, particularly when it comes to their impersonations of famous people (which are never perfect, and perhaps funnier for it) as well as their unrelenting banter, constructing one of the most stinging portrayals of male ego and the world of low-level stardom. Nevertheless, as the years have progressed, the pair have been upping the dramatic/absurdist stakes. The Trip to Spain ended with Coogan being confronted with ISIS itself, and this latest offering features a Syrian refugee camp as one of its opening locations.

It’s not all gloom and doom though, as the discourse still proves thankfully rich any time the two actors sit down to eat — a particular highlight comes in the form of a long segment in which they exchange impersonations of Dustin Hoffman throughout the ages. In a way, every installment, for those who’ve followed since the original The Trip, feels like revisiting old friends in the complex way of real life rather than the simplicity of the adage. Both emotionally evolve, they experience conflict and animosity, and the prolonged time spent with them invites surprising revelations. In each installment, the pair separate and the film follows each toward either home or elsewhere. These moments often prove the most honest: we get a glimpse of these men outside of interpersonal competition and ego-baiting, a look at their lives with the instinct for performance turned off. In The Trip to Greece, this coda presents a gut punch that closes the whole series in a satisfying way, giving us two unique characters at completely different places in their lives: a man who wants everything but is losing it all, and a man who sees what he has as enough and might still find more. Jaime Grijalba Gomez


Valley Girl

From the film’s earliest moments, as Alicia Silverstone appears as a forty-ish mother recounting her adventurous teenage years via amiable maternal chit-chat with her distraught daughter, Ruby (Camila Morrone), it isn’t hard to predict the course that Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Valley Girl, a remake of its1983 namesake, will take. Alicia Silverstone plays an adult Julie (with Jessica Rothe doing the heavy lifting as her youthful iteration), and her narration sets up the film’s flashback structure. Goldenberg leans heavily on nostalgia for her 80s-set La La Land, and in doing so chooses the quickest, safest, and most familiar path forward. Unlike the original version, which remains authentic and relevant to this day, this update is much too satisfied to rely on its surface gauze, flirting with the stereotypes and cultural icons of the era with no revitalization. Amid the radiant, joyful pastel palette of the film, which oddly looks more indebted to late nineties and early aughts music video aesthetics than its ostensible eighties reference points, the characters remain decidedly one- or non-dimensional as if made from the same visual plastics. In fairness, depth of character is an arguably unessential component for a successful jukebox musical of light-hearted teenagedom, especially one that so knowingly embraces carefree camp, but here it unfortunately prohibits an otherwise whimsical rom-com from developing any sustained joy, energy, or even playful craziness that could otherwise elevate its more superficial trappings. Though while most of the playlist hits fail to exhilarate and any chemistry between characters fails to substantively coalesce, the delightful presence of Jessica Rothe still manages to add a welcome dose of teen queen sparkle. On the strength of that alone, it’s reasonable to view Goldenberg’s Valley Girl as a bit of harmless, devil-may-care kitsch it is built to be digested as guilty pleasure (even if the ratio between guilt and pleasure feels pressed). But while the film will work well enough for many as a bit of retro fun, plenty will instead feel compelled to echo not Julie, but rather Silverstone’s classic Cher Horowitz from Clueless: “Ugh, as if!” Ayeen Forootan


Driveways

An air of melancholy hangs heavy over Andrew Ahn’s genteel suburban drama Driveways, some of which can be attributed to its themes of loss and forgiveness, but also because it is one of the last feature film roles of the great Brian Dennehy, who passed away last month of natural causes at the age of 81. An absolute force of nature, he was the type of actor who possessed true screen presence, an imposing bear of a man who could transform from teddy to grizzly in a matter of moments. Driveways finds Dennehy in rather subdued form, playing an affable war veteran named Del who befriends new neighbors Kathy (Hong Chau) and her 8-year-old son, Cody (Lucas Jaye). Kathy has come to this small midwestern suburb to sell the house of her now-deceased sister, with whom she had a tenuous relationship. Cody, meanwhile, is shy, quiet, and prone to nerve-induced bouts of nausea. Cody and Del immediately take a liking to one another, not only because they each need one another — Cody struggles to find the courage to live his life, while Del simply longs to find companionship in his twilight years — but also because the script is too schematic by half.

This feels like a relic from another era, more specifically the early 2000s, when indie studios were churning out about ten of these low-key domestic affairs a year. The irony is that Ahn clearly wants to buck mainstream conventions and audience expectations, giving no thought to the fact that he is instead embracing a slew of others. Kathy and Cody may indeed be Vietnamese-American, but the second we see Del eyeing them while wearing his Korea War veteran’s cap, we automatically assume this film is headed into Gran Torino territory. But nope; he is instantly presented as a swell guy. What conflict that does exist in this film is strictly internal, as Kathy tries to overcome the guilt she feels over her sister’s death, while Del struggles with his own mortality. Chau, who gave a firecracker of a performance in 2018’s Downsizing, is fine in a role that forces her to tamp down her more appealing qualities, while Dennehy is dependably great, delivering a powerhouse ending monologue that makes the viewing worthwhile. One only wishes Ahn had found the film’s pulse a tad earlier. There is nothing inherently wrong with Driveways; but like the light dew that kisses the lawns and homes of its protagonists in the early morning light, it will dissipate from your memory in a matter of minutes. Steven Warner


Closeness

Tribal frictions unfurl, both combative and internalized, when a young Jewish couple is abducted in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, a space in which resides a plethora of cultural groups all burdened by the memory of genocide, confronted by images of further ethnic violences that surround them; these barbarities are all proximally near, yet on screen transpire on such a passive medium as a television across the room. Director Kantemir Balagov, operating rather methodically, assembles a dwindling character piece, ensuring steady attention is given, while keeping gesture and action broad enough to allow for the interpolation of an observant indignation, which rests on the aforementioned hostility. Such abrasion is at its strongest when scrutinizing the rebellion of our protagonist, Ila (Darya Zhovner), who would defy her parents, shaming them in the community, and casting a very complicated post-WWII history into the movements of their Jewish household. After all, this is a sphere where cultural alienation determines the arrangement of loyalty.

Closeness relishes this question of fidelity, and how far the concept can be pushed before one is confronted with the concession of their individuality, for the sake of a collective, the family, and the unpliable expectations of normalized prejudices set in the favour of relinquishing certain liberties. How does one reconcile these decisions? This is a question bombastically handled. Balagov’s weakness lies in how much emphasis he places on the momentum of acute, palpable gesticulation, the interactions of characters so closely intermingling, suffocating under the constraints that the frame forces them within. From gesture to gesture, relationships build until interrupted by emphatic dramatics, which is ultimately the untethering of the work, transparently rendering these observed folk, their woes our wonder, their perpetuating diaspora a kind of non-entity in this play of curt animosities and hazy loves. The film bookends with intertitles that position Balagov as spectator, as second-hand storyteller. This postitionality aptly extends to the film: it finds intrigue only in movements and not in their implications, histories, or guilt. Zachary Goldkind


Deerskin

The life of a sociopath is laid bare in Quentin Dupieux’s macabre satire Deerskin, in which Academy Award Winner Jean Dujardin plays Georges, a man who spends his life savings on a second-hand deerskin jacket, only to then become unnervingly obsessed with it. Armed with such a bonkers premise, its director and star both commit to rendering Georges thoroughly devoid of any etiquette or feeling, absorbed only in his own status and the impression he makes on others. Dujardin is clearly having fun in a role that encourages his gift for comedy, while Dupieux gives the audience plenty of room for thought. Is Georges’ behavior a result of a mid-life crisis, the recent breakdown of his marriage, or simply a lifelong instinct for self-involvement? Dupieux poses interesting questions, but is considerably less generous with Georges’ companion of sorts, Denise (Adele Haenel), as the film fails to convey just why she is so invested in him. Her perceived gullibility is explained away rather flippantly, and her actions throughout feel more like a plot convenience than any natural extension of her character. The duo’s propulsion into the world of filmmaking represents a rather tongue-in-cheek nod to the perceived narcissism inherent in the profession; and while there are a couple of amusing movie-related jokes, the humor largely remains deliciously morbid, ratcheting up the Georges’ lack of control to amplify the suggested danger in his actions. But there is always a clear narrative trajectory, and, unfortunately, Dupieux does not seem to be able to surprise beyond the outlandishness of his comedy, the eventual descent into psychological horror territory ultimately feeling schematic. Deerskin is still wicked fun and earns some goodwill for its sheer originality, but its successes remain decidedly minor and ultimately won’t live in the memory for long. Calum Reed


The Wolf House

To describe a film as magical may be a usually empty judgment, but in the case of Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s The Wolf House, it is, in fact, fitting. It is a film in the vein of visionaries or even illusionists, part of a lineage that can be traced back to the Mélièsian origins of cinematographic art. Here, the two young directors combine the mood and tone of children’s stories with political satire subtext and lead viewers into an immersive wonderland of nightmares and dreams. León and Cociña apply and mix a variety of techniques from pencil drawings to color paintings, but mainly stop-motion, to construct a singular world where everything is always evolving from one moment to the next. Shapes, figures, objects, patterns, and color splashes appear, disappear, and reappear, expanding the spatial potentialities within the boundaries of the strange small (doll)house where the film’s female protagonist (Maria) takes refuge after escaping a German colony of brainwashing and suppression, and a fiendish wolf that attempts to hunt this Red Riding Hood of sorts. In the same manner, the puppet characters are also under permanent transfiguration and metamorphosis. Their bodies transform, are wounded, dismembered, and burned, become shattered, fall into collapse or melt away. Their faces change, and they shift sizes as if, while undergoing political instability or suffering from unseen malevolent forces, they become deprived of their true existence and essence. Although, at first, Maria appears as a symbolic mother-figure of divinity and faith who miraculously turn her two piglets into human children and brings candle-lights, dance, and music to this haunted house of doom and gloom, it is not until the end that we find that her presence doubles as a device in the apparatus of colonialism. But even as the finale represents an ironic not so happily ever after, still remnants of hope remain: that while oppressive systems might be able to destroy the physic, the magic of hearts and souls remain and matter. Ayeen Forootan


Porno

If you are naming your new indie horror flick Porno, you had better make damn sure you deliver on the grindhouse expectations that undoubtedly live within the minds of its target audience. Unfortunately, Porno is the exact opposite of down-and-dirty, a cynical attempt at latching onto the current craze of ‘90s nostalgia. The irony here is that the early ‘90s are often thought of as the nadir for the horror genre; the fact that this film truly feels like it came out of that shitshow era is both its greatest strength and weakness. A small-town movie theater run by a Christian fundamentalist is actually the former home of a porn theater, a fact soon discovered by the five-person teenage crew that makes up its staff. Upon coming across an old film print and screening it after hours, our protagonists unwittingly let loose a beautiful and deadly succubus who is hellbent on using the teens’ budding sexuality against them to capture their horny souls. So far, so good. But the execution here is severely lacking, as first-time feature director Keola Racela and writers Matt Black and Laurence Vannicelli are unable to settle on a consistent tone. With its ample sex and nudity, it clearly wants to deliver the racy goods promised by that title. But it also wants to be campy, with a sense of humor that seems borrowed from lesser episodes of Stranger Things. It then strives for social commentary, as it dives headfirst into religious hypocrisy, conversion therapy, and sexual assault. Of course, this is all at odds with a scene later in the film that attempts gory mayhem a la Evil Dead when a character’s testicles literally explode, and another has to put a tourniquet on his dick, all shown in graphic detail. It doesn’t help that most of the film’s runtime consists of the kids walking down the same hallways over and over, flashlights in hand, investigating strange noises. Had this narrative mode been handled with a modicum of tension or artistry, perhaps all would be forgiven. But Porno is so stupid that it doesn’t even understand that if there is one thing the titular genre knows how to accomplish, it is leaving its audience members satisfied. This is nothing but a lesson in blue balls. Steven Warner


Kicking the Canon | Film Selection



With the 2020 Cannes Film Festival shuttered in the wake of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, the spring festival’s storied history is once again on the minds of cinephiles across the globe. A festival well over 70 years old, it’s become the most prestigious festival on the annual calendar, with its award winners often defaultly pushed into the global cinema conversation regarding a respective year’s best offerings. And yet, history is a different story, and some of these works become lost to it. Take, for example, the final feature film from legendary director Victor Erice — The Quince Tree Sun (or Dream of Light). The film is best billed as one in a long lineage of docu-fiction hybrids, a mode of cinema that has evolved artistically and gained traction with audiences in the years since. The Quince Tree Sun’s deceptively simple narrative introduces viewers to painter Antonio Lopeź García, a man who attempts to paint the gorgeous, titular flora that grows in his yard. As time passes, changes afflict the tree: its form changes and its fruits become heavy with rot and fall to the ground. The subsequent winter brings a temporary death followed soon by a rebirth. The tree is surrounded by a web of strings and weights intended to give the painter an advantage over the always changing tree, acting as relational signposts marking the last stroke he made on his canvas, with varying degrees of success. As the film progresses, the viewers’ witness of this process becomes increasingly pervaded by the daily goings on of Garcia’s wife (herself an artist whose own painting becomes something of a stinging revelation near the film’s end), as well as an encroaching war in the Middle East. And, of course for any film so indebted to the creative method, the painter’s friends and contemporaries stop by throughout in order to muse on the artist, the artistic process, aging, and time.

Shot with profound intimacy and a quiet hand, The Quince Tree Sun can superficially be described as a “documentary,” sure, but what makes the film so breathtaking nearly 30 years on is not its subtle neo-realism. Rather, Erice’s almost Malickian interest in the metaphysical is what stirs. Whereas the enigmatic Texan finds beauty in the spiritual, Erice’s view is less guided by any belief structure and is more concerned with the inescapability of time’s passing. Long shots capture Garcia painstakingly trying to fight the inevitable dissolution of his subject, all while he finds himself staring down the final act of his life. This is in many ways Erice’s The Tree of Life, as The Quince Tree Sun is less interested in Garcia’s painting of his tree in any literal sense than he is in its symbolic potential for his views on life, death, art and time. Garcia tries to skirt Sisyphean ends, to capture a specific moment in his and this tree’s life before they both pass, yet within seconds a light can shift, a fruit could fall or a storm could come. Erice seems to be interrogating the very notion of meaning: in life, in art, in process, in the impossible.

Its relevance to our current quarantine state may not be readily apparent, but the context actually feels fitting. Rarely ever leaving the confines of Garcia’s home, The Quince Tree Sun is a film both interested in cosmic-sized questions and one that operates on a profoundly intimate scale. It’s a film built on the literal passage of time on screen, and while it came nearly 30 years before the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels strangely in conversation with our bewildering present. Isolationary in many senses, the film is a gorgeously rendered portrait of man’s, sometimes bleak, contemplations, but here it’s formed less as miserablist meditation and more as something akin to balm, a baptism of sorts for viewers who have, in 2020, been forced to experience time’s passing with more freedom and less surety than ever before. And while there’s no prophecy to be found in Erice’s work, it’s a testament to its universal truths and questions that The Quince Tree Sun stands as one of cinema’s great explorations of time and our unfixed place within it. Josh Brunsting

You Might Also Like

In Review | Online film and music criticism