by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 4: Atarrabi and Mikelats, The Human Voice, Hopper/Welles

October 3, 2020
Credit: NYFF

Atarrabi and Mikelats

A late-blooming filmmaker with admirably catholic interests, increasingly Catholic tendencies, and a rather revanchist reputation, Eugène Green, not unlike Éric Rohmer before him, is concerned with questions of modernity. Following a lilting prefatory journey from bustling tourist center to bucolic Basque country, his latest, Atarrabi and Mikelats, offers an epigraph from Fernando Pessoa (“Myth is the nothing that is everything”), and then proceeds to tell the local legend that gives the film its title. After the goddess Mari lies with a mortal man one evening, she entrusts her two sons from that union, Atarrabi and Mikelats, to the care of the devil (Thierry Biscary). The pair of brothers soon grow up, but once they come of age, their paths diverge irrevocably: Mikelats (Lukas Hiriart) throws in his lot with the devil, pledging his allegiance in exchange for immortality, while Atarrabi (Saia Hiriart) escapes to the world above, though as his shadow is stolen by his brother, he “cannot receive the light of God.” This particular relationship between light and shadow — its physical certainties as well as its miraculous impossibilities — form the organizing visual and thematic principles of Green’s feature.

All this unfolds in the New York–born, French filmmaker’s now-identifiable style. Alongside his recognizably Bressonian découpage, which here allows a series of nighttime visits to accrue impressive force, Green adds his own cadences of dialogue (often delivered in direct-to-camera address), absurdist, anachronistic humor (in both story and production design), and a taste for musical sequences that unfold at length, and preferably in candlelight. (The narrative stops in its tracks to make room for two dance sequences: the first a folk dance during which Atarrabi falls in love with a local girl; the second a kind of ritual involving Mikelats, his fellow demons, and a figure in a giant goat’s head.) Questions of belief — about how one is to go about the hard stuff of living — resonate throughout this uncommonly sensuous film, which is everywhere attuned to the movements of the natural world. But as matters of faith don’t plague the title characters equally, we keep mostly to Atarrabi, who chooses not to marry the woman he loves and continues to toil at the local monastery, wearing more or less the same equanimous expression all the while. Still, it is unlikely that Saia Hiriart, here making his screen debut, would have passed muster with Bresson: though undeniably measured and mannered, his performance as Atarrabi doesn’t have the affectless unity of one of the French master’s “models.” But the film is all the better for it, and Green’s tender camera-eye is attentive to every quiver of the actor’s face — to the cracks, as it were, in his façade. And when, at the climax, Atarrabi collapses into a flood of tears, the scene’s waves of compassion and sense of physical release leave no room for comparison any longer. It remains possible to question how Green poses the matter of faith in a faithless world — “You are not modern,” the selfless Atarrabi is told early on — but by the end of Atarrabi and Mikelats, one is not so much persuaded to share the artist’s belief as made to feel the force of his conviction. In the telling of myth, this is the difference between nothing and everything. Lawrence Garcia


The Human Voice

In the late 1920s, the French poet, filmmaker, novelist, and playwright Jean Cocteau wrote a new play and brought it to the stage in 1930. Cocteau admitted he conceived of this monodrama when some of his actresses confronted him and complained that his eccentric writing and directing style didn’t provide enough opportunity for them to entirely realize their full acting potential. Now, after ninety years, Pedro Almodóvar brings The Human Voice to the screen as a 30-minute free cinematic adaptation of Cocteau’s work. It’s no wonder that Almodóvar was drawn to the material: Cocteau’s one-act play aligns very neatly with one of Almodóvar’s favorite recurring motifs, offering as it does an affectionate observation of its female protagonist teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The director partners with Tilda Swinton for his first English-language film, which recounts the story of an anonymous woman who is overcome with hysteria after she finds herself facing the sudden disappearance of her lover and impatiently waiting for him to return. Indeed, The Human Voice is largely built upon Swinton’s singular deportment, and Almodóvar and his regular cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, attune the camera to Swinton’s perfervid presence, capturing gestures and postures, facial expressions, eye movements, and the shifting ways she shapes her constant confessional monologues in the form of a one-sided conversation with her beloved delivered via her AirPods. The camera follows her through the rooms, corridors, and doorways of her apartment (the set is constructed with a clear theatricality) as if she’s confined within her hallucinatory and labyrinthine isolation — which sounds even more appropriate for a project shot during the pandemic and domestic lockdown. Over the film’s economical runtime, one which gives Almodóvar’s narrative more focus and integrity than is found in some of his features, the camera whirls around his protagonist’s body, frequently depicting her face in close-up and allowing viewers a view of her bubbling interiority.

But Almodóvar’s work is just as much about exterior spaces as it is about Swinton’s performance. Here, the beautiful varicolored set is not merely ornamental but also bestows an expressive and revelatory quality upon the narrative. The linens, fabrics, pigments, and various objects work in total harmony with the character. In Almodóvar’s hands, a distressed woman, who herself seems but another object within a luxurious apartment saturated in color at the beginning, soon integrates into and guides through the space. She changes her cold blue suit to a deep red turtleneck sweater — as if externalizing her impassioned woundedness — and in the film’s final scene, she wears a black leather jacket as a sign of rebellious re-emergence. Paintings of nude female figures on the wall and even a hollow, wire dressmaker mannequin on the set reflect Swinton’s act of baring herself through raw, sometimes therapeutic communication. A broken champagne glass and shattered china shows her fragility, and whenever she lights a cigarette, cherry tip burning red, she expresses her most desperate and vengeful thoughts. In an earlier scene, Swinton steps into a hardware store as she conceals her eyes behind a big pair of sunglasses — recalling Gena Rowlands’ appearance in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. It’s a fitting comparison as The Human Voice is a film likewise about a woman’s authentic self competing with a persona, someone who oscillates between the being on and off the metaphorical stage, existing somewhere between reality, dream and nightmare, life and death, and varying psychological states (Alberto Iglesias’ histrionic strings helps to intensify this atmosphere.) In this way, Almodóvar’s latest is something of a meta-film, the film’s theatrical artifice working in tandem with its emphasis on the human instinct for performance. Through his precise mise-en-scène and his attention to minor details, he turns Cocteau’s play into a multi-layered film on an actress incessantly covering and uncovering, recovering, and finally discovering herself. Ayeen Forootan


The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror

Raúl Ruiz has always presented a unique challenge to traditional film scholarship. With a vast filmography that spans decades, working in multiple countries, and using every conceivable audio/visual format — large and small gauge film, video, television commissions, theater productions — Ruiz’s labyrinthine oeuvre is like a phantom history running parallel to our preconceived notions of European cinema. It’s fitting then that not even death has stopped him; since his passing in 2011, his widow, filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento, has helped shepherd at least two presumed lost or otherwise rediscovered projects to completion. The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror is their latest posthumous collaboration, featuring footage shot in 1967 and abandoned after Ruiz fled Chile and the Pinochet regime in 1973. 

Sarmiento has completed the film, adding music and reconstructing dialogue, and while it’s impossible to know exactly what Ruiz would have done with it, it seems safe to assume that Sarmiento has a special insight into Ruiz’s original intentions. It’s a modest film, barely an hour long, but indicates Ruiz’s already burgeoning fascination with specters and hauntings. An aged professor (Ruben Sotoconil) mourns the passing of his wife and is slowly overtaken by sinister dreams and visions of her ghost. Unable to go on, he kills himself, at which point the film begins to run in reverse, replaying the first half of the film backwards, now with mysterious commentary from what seems like a demon of sorts. Acts that were once mundane — meals with friends, browsing book stores, imbibing some home brewed alcohol — take on a bizarre, phantasmagorical quality. The Tango of the Widower… would represent one of Ruiz’s first sustained filmmaking efforts (writing way back in 1987, in his essential article Mapping the Territory of Raúl Ruiz, Jonathan Rosenbaum notes only that “he [Ruiz] attended film school in Santa Fé, Argentina, for a year… quitting in 1967 to embark on an ambitious feature in Buenos Aires, loosely inspired by a Daphne du Maurier novel, which was never finished. [Like many of Ruiz’s Chilean works, it is a lost work in more ways than one; the whereabouts of the only print are currently unknown].” 

If it was lost in “more ways than one,” it also now exists in more ways than one, simultaneously Ruiz’s earliest known work and also his newest. It’s a fascinating contradiction, one that Ruiz, with his penchant for puzzles and games, would certainly appreciate. Formally, the first half of the film is interesting, if not exactly spectacular. Ruiz shoots in black and white, with a mobile camera that resembles Raoul Coutard’s work as the go-to cinematographer of the French New Wave. Ruiz freely mixes documentary-style street scenes with darker, expressionistic shadow work as Sotoconil becomes mired in depression. Taking a page from avant-garde of the 40s and 50s, Ruiz uses simple tricks to create a dark underworld of devils and ghosts, leading to a final image that is breathtakingly ominous, an obscured face glaring directly into the camera as it distorts into a diabolical rictus grin. By any measure, it’s no masterpiece, but is a welcome addition to the ongoing adventure that is Ruiz’s ever-expanding body of work. Daniel Gorman


Hopper/Welles

It’s a bit dubious to sell Hopper/Welles as a newly discovered lost work from Orson, though one can understand how that might be an enticing marketing hook within the context of the great director’s famously frustrated career. What Hopper/Welles might be more accurately described as is an artifact or historical curiosity, a documentary that has obvious cultural significance, but one that probably wasn’t meant to look like this, or even be screened publicly. Hopper/Welles is essentially a feature-length interview between Orson Welles (the conductor) and Dennis Hopper (tasked with responding). What is being screened at NYFF (and previously at Venice, where it debuted) is a 130-minute edit of about five hours of raw footage found along with the footage that would become the 2018 cut of The Other Side of The Wind. That film contained footage of Hopper presumably stitched in from this session, so it may be safe to assume that this project was a sort of exercise intended to feed into The Other Side of The Wind, and less a work unto itself. 

With all that said, Hopper/Welles is inherently intriguing, obviously. And while its worth interrogating the way producer Filip Jan Rymsza and editor/co-producer Bob Murawski (apparently the architects of this project as well as The Other Side of The Wind restoration) have shaped this material (Welles cut up his actual negatives in ways that seem to imply intended edits, apparently), it’s not hard to see why they thought the footage might register with contemporary viewers. The film is shot almost entirely in close up, the camera sporadically cutting between a handful of angles that always keep Hopper’s head as the focus. Welles stays off camera, choosing to assert himself as a disembodied voice, a bellowing interrogator, easing Hopper in via a survey of expected questions about art and process, before directly challenging his political beliefs and radical persona. Throughout this, Welles occasionally dons his “Jake Hannaford” persona (a character that would be physically embodied by John Huston in The Other Side of The Wind ), and Hopper responds to him as if the fictional director is considering him for a role. It’s hard to say if this aspect of Hopper/Welles is simply spontaneous improv meant to be repurposed, or actually some attempt to give this footage a structure and thematic framework, but in this current edit, it adds further mystery to the on screen proceedings and convincingly places itself adjacent to late Welles canon like F For Fake. That film’s interest in cinema’s stage magic origins and the slipperiness of persona and performance are all touched on in Hopper/Welles, albeit much more directly. 

As a distinct feature, Hopper/Welles doesn’t necessarily work. In a generous light, this film is a neat excuse for Welles to riff on the then contemporary New York avant garde (Warhol, Clarke, Mekas) of whom Hopper had some notable association at that point. More realistically (but not much less interesting), this is a poignantly timed project that knowingly picks at the image of both men and what they represent to their respective generations. Most curiously, Hopper comes off oddly pragmatic, maintaining a dedication to vague centrist values in the face of questions about police violence and radicalism (Easy Rider is not meant to be read as anti-cop apparently). It’s hard to gauge to what extent this is a performance (from both men), or to what extent Welles takes Hopper seriously, and in fact, it’s hard not to ask these questions generally of this project. But arguably, this is part of what makes Hopper/Welles such enticing viewing in the first place. M.G. Mailloux


The Plastic House

It’s hard to know what to make of Allison Chhorn’s new film The Plastic House, which plays equally like an experimental documentary and an obscurantist diary film. It’s neither fish nor fowl, which may certainly be by design, but it’s so insular that it leaves the viewer adrift, with no clear structure to hold on to. Chhorn begins the film with two title cards, “Mum 1959 – 2015” and then “Dad 1959 – 2016.” This is the only non-visual information we are given throughout the 45-minute film, and its purposeful placement gives the proceedings a mournful, elegiac tone. Next, we see a dilapidated husk of a greenhouse as (presumably) the filmmaker clears away desiccated husks of dead plants. There follows tilling and digging and the planting of new seeds. In the span of one edit, the greenhouse is suddenly green and verdant once again. Scenes of tending to the greenhouse are intercut with scenes of Chhorn alone in her apartment, along with brief, recurring shots of rustling bed sheets and the billowing plastic walls and roof of the greenhouse. What we have here is a series of strategies — extreme closeups of hands and objects, montage sequences of vibrant greenery, recurring shots through car windshields, virtually no non-diegetic sound or music, Chhorn’s steadfast refusal to clearly show her own face on screen, instead shooting herself from behind or from obscured angles — that don’t seem to add up to anything particularly meaningful. The film seems to be about cycles of death and rebirth, but it’s also kind of about the director’s solitude. Chhorn complicates her visual schema by introducing brief snippets of what sound like recordings of conversations between herself and a family member, as well as low-res camcorder footage of the greenhouse that contrasts with the precise, HD video that the rest of the film is shot on, but this seems to obfuscate more than illuminate any deeper meaning. There are also some fairly banal passages: a sequence where an excerpt from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying flashes up on screen (“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep… I dont [sic] know what I am”) and then cuts to Chhorn restless in bed; or scenes of her listening to drone-y synth music that then periodically pops up over other sections of the film. There are intimations of symbolic rebirth as the film ends with the greenhouse’s destruction (water imagery indicates the influence of Tsai Ming-liang) and Chhorn marching into a foggy field with shovel in hand, presumably to begin again. It’s quite surprising, then, to find that her parents are actually alive and that The Plastic House is in fact a speculative account of imaginary isolation. Chhorn is of course free to fictionalize in any way she sees fit, but this knowledge does alter one’s understanding of the emotional tenor of the film. In fabricating her parents’ premature demise, and using that as a lens through which to view the rest of the film, she replaces one fairly universal experience  — the loss of loved ones — with a purposeful, predetermined act that smacks of solipsism. Chhorn clearly has some formal chops, and The Plastic House has an agreeably homemade feel, but the film is ultimately too opaque to confer anything beyond a moody sensibility. Daniel Gorman

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