The myth of Orpheus seems to tell us that in the face of overwhelming grief, the hardest thing to do is have faith that things will get better. Grief-stricken after the death of his wife, he seeks out Hades himself and is told: Eurydice will return to you, but you must trust me. Don’t look back. And Orpheus, struck by the beauty of the sun as they walk out of the Underworld together, turns to share the moment with his beloved wife, and she disappears. Queena Li adapts this myth for her debut feature, Bipolar, the story of a young Chinese woman (Leah Dou) who embarks on a road trip through Tibet with a lobster in the passenger seat.
Water is frequently evoked as the mostly linear narrative cuts away to scenes of swimming pools, bathtubs, fishing nets, and the rippling surface of a lake or ocean. In Li’s hands, water represents both the unconscious mind and the trauma submerged beneath the tide. She steadily builds on these seemingly disjointed ideas, eventually showing the unnamed woman with a man who looks uncannily similar. Depictions of suicide and depression start to appear, although motives and explanations remain opaque. Are they in an abusive or codependent romantic relationship? Are they siblings, perhaps twins? Or maybe these figures represent two sides of the same person and audiences are meant to interpret the film’s title literally. We’re also shown flashbacks of her life as a successful singer and performer (incidentally, Leah Dou is the daughter of musicians Dou Wei and Chungking Express’s Faye Wong), where the woman is an angry, charismatic presence alone on a cavernous stage.
The lobster is initially portrayed as a quasi-mystical being, colored in rainbow stripes and submerged in a tank alongside pearl and crystal necklaces. The image is a fitting metaphor for the commodification of Tibet in general, where industrialization blights the landscape and lavish hotels cater to tour groups of “pilgrims.” But over the course of the film, the lobster’s paint wears off and the narrator sees it for what it is: an ordinary crustacean with an impenetrable exoskeleton and a questionable ability to feel pain. Ostensibly, the young woman is returning the lobster to its rightful home at Ming Lake Lighthouse, and the entire film is about this odyssey – not quite the pilgrimage people usually come to Tibet to undertake, but a spiritual journey nonetheless. But when she finally gets there, she’s told the lighthouse doesn’t exist. It’s a made-up tourist trap, and the only local who believes it is considered mad.
The idea of home comes up frequently: the narrator is assumed to be a runaway, while an adolescent monk tells her, “Home is like a hotel. You check in, then you check out.” In another sequence, the road trip is interrupted when the narrator and her friend sneak into a zoo where the animals sit in bleak metal cages — it’s a noble gesture, even if it didn’t actually happen. Throughout the film, dreams and memories commingle with disconcerting ease and symbols abound, or at least appear to. At times, though, Bipolar’s dependence on amorphous visuals and dream logic threatens to capsize the already slight plot; and with so little to hold onto, viewers may feel just as adrift as the anonymous narrator.
Writer: Selina Lee
Riders of Justice
Riders of Justice bears a tone that will be familiar to those fluent in the collaborative work of director Anders Thomas Jensen and stars Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and Nicolas Bro. The four have previously teamed up on The Green Butchers, Adam’s Apples, and Men & Chicken, all of which are recognizably dark comedies that also, to varying degrees, toe the line of farce. Jensen is also well-known for his screenplay contributions to Susanne Bier’s films, shaping his scripts to her more dour domestic tragedies. The latest reunion of the four Danish lads, then, finds the director blurring the lineation of these two disparate artistic worlds, to predictably mixed effect. Riders of Justice’s narrative is fairly front-loaded: Markus (Mikkelsen) is a soldier reluctantly returned home after the death of his wife in a train explosion in order to care for his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), who survived. Also coming out scathed but alive is Otto (Kaas), a statistical analyst recently fired from his work developing an algorithm that would predict future events. After discovering that a Riders of Justice gang member who was set to testify against the brutal crime boss (Roland Møller) was also aboard and died (alongside myriad other signifiers, like a suspicious man who threw away an uneaten sandwich and drink moments before the explosion), Otto determines that the incident was no accident and, flanked by his eccentric hacker friends Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Bro), seeks out the widower to convey his suspicions. A hardened, vengeance-minded man, Markus jumps at the opportunity to enact retribution against the eponymous criminal outfit, and soon, as these crime comedies go, all four men have become both hunter and hunted.
Given the personalities of the four men, the film’s gonzo comedy is fairly easily entrenched: Otto’s data scientist has frazzled, lite-Einstein hair, a bum arm, and a pathologically docile manner; Lennart is a distinct peculiarity, defined by his fascination with a large barn and the amount of psychological evaluation he’s endured; Emmenthaler is cut from the angry nerd cloth, guided in most of his interactions by emotional fragility and a concomitant hair-trigger temper; and Markus is the straight man nucleus of the buffoonish quartet, a severe man with a severe haircut, and simmering with quiet rage. If these characters sound more like caricatures, that’s not far off, but Jensen effectively orchestrates sequences and punctuates his dialogue in a way that suggests a sub-Coens kinship — the plot convolutions and callbacks aren’t as neatly teased out and the attempt to mine pathos from absurdity falters toward the end, but the influence is evident. If the effect is ultimately limited, it’s at least not inconsiderable.
But as the film progresses toward its obvious destination, eschewing its heretofore meandering form — even if a few plot wrinkles are mixed in — much of the comedic texture is flattened in service of some unnecessary, even manipulative emotional catharsis. Seemingly inspired choices (using Mikkelsen’s familiar and imposing stoicism as foil to the surrounding, absurdist chaos) are soon diminished by lamely conventional ones (using Mikkelsen’s familiar and imposing stoicism to usher in a shallow study in trauma and some lachrymose happy-ending feels), and even the film’s potential moral knottiness is preemptively untangled when the baddies attempt to submachine gun the fellas first, thus lowering any ethical stakes. Even the big shoot-out is disappointing, the built-to sequence unduly protracted and the gunplay mostly banal. Pre-climax (and especially pre-coda), there’s a lot of outré fun to be had in Riders of Justice: Jensen borrows the bonkers grain of Men & Chicken and transposes it onto much of the interpersonal action here. The mistake, then, is that he sublimates his weirdo comedic instincts to more middlebrow aims. It’s understandable that the director wouldn’t want to indulge in mere rehash, but in kowtowing to the over-earnest emotionalism that defined much of his mid-aughts scriptwork, he largely mutes the singularity he’s been building toward as a director. The result of this odd marriage is a film that boasts frequent bursts of personality, but is ultimately rendered anonymous.
Writer: Luke Gorham
The North Wind
A bizarre parable that doubles as a kind of fractured fairy tale, The North Wind is a grab bag of vaguely surrealist tropes surrounding a group of grotesque caricatures. After a brief prologue (shot in an ugly digital approximation of black and white) that sees figures fleeing from an exploding building, there follows some mumbo-jumbo about a wealthy family that possessed a special clock with a 13th and 25th hour. The film then segues into ugly HD digital color and proceeds to introduce us to this group of decadent, vaguely aristocratic malcontents: the matriarch, Margarita (Renata Litvinova, also the film’s writer and director), who narrates this tale; her son, Benedict (Anton Shagin); his fiancé, Fannie (Svetlana Khodchenkova); and various other cousins, visitors, and hangers-on. The family lives in a perpetual New Year’s Eve celebration, and the film is composed of a collection of scenes surrounding each annual dinner. Characters come and go, but there’s little to demarcate the passage of time in any traditional sense. These people are comfortably nestled in amber, with no exposure to the outside world, drowning in champagne and petty, passive-aggressive gamesmanship — a menagerie of freaks, which Litvinova’s camera revels in sneering at. There is a loose narrative of sorts, although it progresses in fits and starts. When Fannie dies in an airplane crash, Benedict marries her sister, Faina (Sofia Ernst). They have a son, Hugo, who Margarita is convinced will lead the family back to greatness, but Benedict has no love for Faina, and in a bit of Vertigo-adjacent madness, pines over Fannie’s ghost. Faina tries in vain to win his affections, but eventually runs afoul of Margarita, who takes steps to rid her family of this interloper. That’s the crux, as it were, but the film makes room for all manner of absurd subplots during its interminable two-hour runtime.
The North Wind frequently feels like a variation on Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, except Litvinova ignores her own structural conceit just often enough to render it useless. Elsewhere, the film’s practical artistry is undeniably gauche: fastidious attention is paid to the flamboyant production and costume design — the family home is a baroque nightmare, and each successive outfit worn by Margarita is more outlandish than the last — and the hair and makeup design of each character becomes a parade of increasingly outlandish buffoonery. This is all obviously supposed to be at least a little funny, but intentional camp is a tricky needle to thread. More often than not, the film simply sits there, with little variation or tonal modulation, a slog that’s frequently interesting to look at but which grows quickly wearisome. Litvinova gives an admittedly towering performance, but her prowess as an actress doesn’t extend to either writing or directing (at least this time out), and she has a tendency to literalize or otherwise spell out her themes, as the family home becomes dilapidated and overgrown with junk while their fortune (which they keep buried in the ground) gradually begins to rot from the inside out. As a dark comedy, The North Wind is more belabored than amusing; as a critique (or skewering) of the upper class, it’s obnoxiously obvious. Some odd, anachronistic needle drops and a frustratingly oblique coda only confirm that The North Wind is more a mishmash of disparate, mostly cliched ideas than a fully-formed artistic or political statement.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
During her lifetime, Marguerite Duras assembled a robust body of work spanning journalism, theatre, literature, and film. Duras’ books and plays are frequently adapted to this day; generally requiring minimalist staging and small casts, but dense with beguiling philosophical dialogues, they exert an understandable attraction to working filmmakers. Yet adaptations of the writer’s work often fail to measure up to the productions that Duras directed herself, relatively straightforward tales of class and infidelity given shape and dimensionality through avant-garde stagings and performance choices. These are stories that can be presented in a more classical manner without losing narrative cohesion, but when untethered from Duras’ formal invention her writings can become somewhat weightless.
Making its debut at IFFR, Suzanna Andler is the latest and most credible attempt to bring Duras to the big screen. As orchestrated by her long time friend and collaborator, Benoît Jacquot (who began his career in the ’70s as Duras’ assistant director on Woman of the Ganges and India Song and previously directed a cinematic adaptation of her play The Beast of the Jungle), Suzanna Andler offers a muted, measured approach to typical Duras themes. Jacquot’s cinematic interpretation of the text, never previously adapted for the screen, convincingly translates the very rigid, theatrically minded narrative structure of the original script — four dialogue-heavy scenes stretched out over 90 minutes and two locations — but avoids any risky aesthetic choices. Gainsbourg is playing the title character, “the French Riviera’s most cheated on wife” by her own account, a role that requires her to be in front of the camera for the movie’s entire duration. The action that drives the film isn’t wildly different than that of the Duras films Jacquot worked on as assistant director in his youth (though it might be more readily described as anti-action, or inertia): bourgeois matriarch scouts out a summer vacation home for her family while arguing with her boyfriend and fretting about her husband’s own infidelities, etc. It’s a thin premise made thinner by Jacquot’s unadorned approach, which is to say that Suzanna Andler is a nice enough looking movie, but lacks any sort of aesthetic conceit that might accentuate Duras’ words (the closest we get is an elliptical telephone conversation three-quarters of the way through, a repeating, near 180-degree shot of Gainsbourg’s head that cuts back to her face each time it’s about to leave frame). As a point of comparison, the aforementioned India Song covers very similar plotting (though set in the title country with an eye towards criticizing France’s colonialist history), but Duras’ Brechtian blocking and her actors’ cold, mechanical performance style deepen the material, creating a visual representation of the film’s central power structures that allows us to genuinely register the uncanniness of the bourgeois lifestyle. Jacquot seems to hope that Suzanna Andler will engender similar recognition in his audience, but has his own ideas about what people most immediately respond to in Duras’ work. One must imagine that Jacquot has significant attachments to this particular play and that his desire to film it comes from a place of loving tribute, but it’s hard to imagine many coming away with newfound appreciation or insight.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Jonathan Ogilvie’s Lone Wolf, a political thriller told almost entirely through mock surveillance footage, has an admittedly good hook. The police are surveilling Conrad, the radical owner of an anarchist books and (presumably non-anarchist) porn store, as he becomes embroiled in a plot to enact a “victimless atrocity” to call attention to the cause. In surveilling Conrad, their eyes are also set upon his girlfriend, environmental activist Winnie, and her disabled brother Stevie, setting up a domestic tale about the ways in which innocents become entangled in the far-reaching actions of the surveillance state. But Lone Wolf stumbles early and often, ultimately revealing itself to be little more than a rote thriller, and an inert one at that.
The radical bookstore setting and many of the early scenes — like one in which Conrad claims that he’s a minarchist rather than an anarchist — indicate that, unlike so many other thrillers, Ogilvie’s movie might actually be interested in the minutiae of radical politics. If it were, it might have something interesting to say beyond legitimate but shallow complaints about surveillance. Instead, Lone Wolf ends up collapsing a spectrum of political ideology into a blanket radicalism that obfuscates motivation far past any point of sympathy. Conrad’s allegiance to minarchist ideology isn’t explored past the word being dropped a few times, much in the same way that the film name-checks “Antifa” and “black bloc” in a clumsy, tone-deaf manner with minimal regard for what these ideologies and tactics actually constitute. Minarchism is an offshoot of anarchist thinking that makes room for structures like policing and courts in order to enforce a non-aggression principle among the population; the ideology is diverse, and includes both right-wing and left-wing proponents. As such, the use of the label here is not a clear indication of Conrad’s political sympathies, but simply a tool for dramatic irony. After all, the “night-watchman state” he might advocate for could, in all reality, look an awful lot like the surveillance intent on destroying him.
Of course, utterance of the word aside, Lone Wolf doesn’t take time to explain any of this, so this light repudiation of a somewhat obscure political ideology plays like inside baseball for Bakunin readers. But if the viewer is meant to sympathize with or even give a damn about Conrad, it would help to understand even a single thing about his motivation; without that, he’s just a frightening subversive, a narrative happily propagated by the film’s villainous police. In the absence of any guiding context, then, the emotional stakes are instead placed upon Stevie’s increasing and alarming involvement with Conrad, steering the film away from paranoid thriller and towards a manipulative trainwreck of a melodrama. Not only is this thread ultimately sickeningly exploitative, using a disabled character for cheap narrative trauma, it’s also terribly boring, taking all momentum out of the film for nearly half its runtime just to set up a stupid emotional gutpunch. It’s patently insulting and more than a little disappointing to see the film’s bold formal idea wielded to such perfunctory ends.
Writer: Chris Mello
I Comete — A Corsican Summer
Within French cinema, it’s not hard to discern a tradition of films that revolve around groups of youngsters who spend their leisure summertime in Gallic coastal towns. A disparate array of cineastes, each in their own peculiar way, have dedicated attention to this meticulous observation of the notion of youth, something like a right of passage. And in this way, Pascal Tagnati’s directorial debut feature, I Comete – A Corsican Summer, certainly fits the tradition — Éric Rohmer’s work feels like the most obvious superficial touchstone here. Consisting of a series of fixed shots, and unreliant on any specific narrative thrust, Tagnati makes his film a sort of free-flowing atmospheric documentation of Corsica itself, centered around a network of recurring characters across a couple of sun-drenched days and warm, moonlit nights. His approach consistently blurs the line between fiction and documentary, oscillating between a stylistic formalism denoting fictive art and a certain naturalism on the part of the players that feels authentic. His camera mostly remains at a distance from the figures it captures, while bodies and objects (the rim of a wall, a chair, the bend of a road) are carefully arranged in frame, the mise-en-scène frequently fixed on a diagonal. Within these tilting compositions, the French actor-director employs an observational style, reveling in depictions of life’s minutiae — in terms of the shots’ juxtapositions and blocking, it’s not unreasonable to think of the visual style of Roy Andersson or even Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet.
Tagnati is principally concerned with studying these figures in different postural configurations, bodies luxuriating in minor activities — standing, lounging, singing, dancing, drinking, and of course, engaged alternatively in idle chit-chat and more pensive ruminations — and he applies but an impressionistic touch and a certain sensuality to these encounters. This delicacy works both to reveal the most profound sentiments of his characters, reflective of their joys, fears, pleasures, and pains, and to offer a platform for their musings on various socio-political, economic, or cultural factors. And so, as the characters’ declarations and conversations begin to contrast with the tranquility and the ostensible relaxed mood of I Comete’s natural spaces, it can be intuited that the film will gradually bring to the fore the underlying personal, intergenerational, racial, sexual, and class tensions that exist within this microcosm. By delineating this small Corsican community, Tagnati not only examines the universality of hidden thoughts and desires and hopes and anxieties of humanity, but also seizes on the gist of the moment, the very crux of being within life’s ephemerality. In this way, Tagnati’s I Comete, is indeed a very promising debut, reflective of both a deeply empathic instinct and a certain cinephilic lineage, and more than enough to encourage enthusiasm for his future work.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan