In Front of Your Face
The films of Hong Sang-soo, ever so magical yet construed from the affairs of quotidian encounters, every minimal gesture compounding a maximal observation, have over the past two decades established through their associative textures a cinematic canon of sorts; a canon whose shared DNA translates, transmutes, and transcribes between iterations its theses and truths on human existence, equally specific to its social backdrop of contemporary Korea as it speaks to the insights of the wider world. Frequently accused by detractors (as he is admired by defenders) of making the same film over and over, Hong invests in his narrative fiction a slight hand of the metafictional, dovetailing the realism of his constructed scenarios with the teleological properties of fiction qua fiction — to illuminate, but not preach, the many wisdoms that fiction, poised at an advantageous distance, might proffer us.
Following his Best Screenplay win at the 2021 Berlinale for his reverie-like Introduction (a sketching of reverie, to be precise; its formal ellipses and incompleteness exemplify the helpful perspective of treating his works, to varying extents, as creative exercises), the prolific director returns to Cannes, where he was last seen in 2017 with The Day After, bearing nothing less than a spiritual awakening with In Front of Your Face, a title of unusual abrasiveness — literally, in-yer-face! — whose prepositional syntax reveals and preempts its structural absence. For it is not a concrete entity or idea that preoccupies middle-aged woman Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young) throughout the film’s succinct runtime, but an invisible voice, obsession, construct; intangible yet always intimidating, this absence bores a hole in her, consigning her to imperturbable silence, a façade of calm belying maelstroms of anguish.
Sang-ok wakes up on a couch in her sister Jeong-ok’s (Cho Yun-hee)’s apartment; her sister sleeps on a bed adjacent, unconscious of the living world. Later on a walk she tells Sang-ok of a dream she had, a good one, which she cannot yet divulge. “You can’t talk about good dreams until noon. Or so they say,” Jeong-ok frustrates, specifically, our desire to perceive the imperceptible, to trace the lacunae so routinely projected with mountains of signification, present, positive, and presumptuous in their crusade towards certain truth. The older woman, meanwhile, allows us privileged access into her mind. “Everything I see before me is grace. There is no tomorrow. No yesterday, no tomorrow. But this moment right now is paradise.” These words, narrated over Hong’s omniscient survey of her body, externalize an internal being of the mind, soul-searching and seeking closure to some mysterious fissure.
Over breakfast, we peer into Sang-ok’s life and the hints of possible fissures sustained. But with Hong, little is laid bare and nothing quite skirts his enigmatic set-up: estranged a while back from the family, she left for America with some “guy she barely knew” to work at a travel agency in D.C., but subsequently settled down in Seattle to man a liquor store. A phobia of heights (the window in Jeong-ok’s apartment frightens her), a lack of savings (having subsisted on rent abroad), and an unexplained return to her homeland, ostensibly to meet a director interested in casting her for an upcoming film; her sister’s response, that she has “no idea how the other has lived”, is revealing in its broader implications, providing a jolt of reality counter to our triumphant delineation of a character we think we understand better than she herself does.
The rest of In Front of Your Face is composed of similar such interactions, minuscule and microcosmic, between characters and spaces. Stopping by her hometown of Itaewon before her meeting with the director, Jae-won (the familiar face of Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo), Sang-ok visits her childhood home, now occupied by a young mother and her daughter. The courtyard they share a smoke in takes on an unearthly likeness, physically unimpeachable but in spirit a memento of things past and time elapsed; likewise, the little girl whom she tenderly embraces, whose innocence and potential for life she admires as inviolable yet painfully fragile, acquires a personal significance beyond the realm of rules and gestures that constitute social manners, defined instead against the recognition of other independent, a priori individuals.
The pivotal encounter between Sang-ok and Jae-won, lasting close to half the film’s runtime and spread, for the most part, over two extended shots, steers its metaphysical epiphanies closer to metafiction; a self-awareness on Hong’s part that sees his own casting of Lee (an actress and singer hugely popular in the 1990s) reflect his interrogations of art and its claims to beauty and truth. As the duo converse over copious amounts of alcohol, Sang-ok politely declines Jae-won’s propositions and reveals her reasons for doing so. There is a brief pause, a musical interlude or two, before the conversation continues: he suggests a compromise, to collaborate on a short film, admitting his reverence for her beauty ever since he, as a university freshman, saw her acting debut in the early 1990s, particularly “the moment you stared at the pigeons”. He longs to capture that beauty once more, an aestheticized beauty whose desire to romanticize the currency and banality of human existence brings to light the interplay of fiction and non-fiction, acting and non-acting; the same way Sang-ok relates an anecdote of her teenage years to him, a moment of transcendence during and in spite of a resolution to die, in which the faces of those around her “looked so beautiful” that it weaned her off her suicidal desire.
Both faces — the actress Sang-ok captured on celluloid, staring at pigeons; and the faces of humanity she beholds while preparing to depart from it — conjure a sense of relation, a shared understanding of one’s innate being, though they do so to considerably different ends. One relegates being to an eternal abstraction, preserved in its embalming of purity, whereas the other emphasizes its becoming, a state of potentiality and radical freedom. Of course, such dichotomies are only conjectures, for Hong, an undisputed master of them, would know better than to poison their immaterial possibilities with the false lull of certainties. “I felt in my heart what reality was,” confesses Sang-ok to her presumption of mortal realization. When the director phones the next day to apologize for reneging on his promises, thereby disputing this reality, she only laughs; a raucous laughter, not entirely bitter, not entirely derisory, of a woman condemned to the fate of certainty but curiously, because of her knowledge of it, a woman free. In Martin Buber’s terms, the I meets the Thou, and “one who truly meets the world goes out also to God.” Sang-ok’s religious beliefs aren’t clear, but her laughter proves indicative of a contemplation complete, the recognition of herself undertaken through a recognition of that elusive being, lying in wait before her. In Front of Your Face ends the next day, with a shot mirroring its opening of the two women in frame, one appraising the sleeping other. The sleeper’s dream is never revealed to us; and like dreams, mortality can only be comprehended when one faces it directly, and alone.
Writer: Morris Yang
The Worst Person in the World
First published in 1967, Joan Didion’s essay Goodbye to All That details her arrival to, and eventual departure from, New York City, where she would spend the better part of her 20s. It’s a tumultuous time in most people’s lives, and Didion chronicles how her early infatuation with the city changes and mutates as she grew older, from a naive 20-year-old to a disenchanted, if not exactly wiser, 28-year-old. There’s no way of knowing if Joachim Trier had this particular work in mind while crafting his new film The Worst Person in the World, although his own literary proclivities and Didion’s fame would suggest that it’s at least a possibility. Regardless, Trier has produced a remarkable version of this kind of tale, a deceptively straightforward chronicle presented in 12 chapters (with both prologue and epilogue) of a wayward 20-something named Julie (Renate Reinsve) who’s lost in both life and love. Like most people her age, Julie doesn’t know what exactly she wants to do with her life, and the jazzy, energetic prologue finds her changing majors at the drop of a hat while burning through paramours. But then she meets Aksel (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie) at a party, and their flash-in-the-pan romance quickly blossoms into something deeper. Despite their age difference (Aksel is already in his 40s), the couple moves in together, and the next several chapters of the film chart the sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic vicissitudes of their relationship. Julie will eventually end things with Aksel and take them up with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a genial if unremarkable man. But while she contemplates a massive, life-altering decision, tragic circumstances will bring her back to Aksel, though not in a way either could have anticipated.
Call it Trier’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience or, as Didion puts it, “I was very young in New York, and… at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.” Trier’s great talent is finding a way to visualize that rhythm, of novelty and excitement, and to then articulate the how and why of its splintering. It’s the accumulation of tiny details that develops into a portrait of not just Julie, but of the people that orbit around her. Aksel can be pretentious, while Julie can be flighty; he wants children and she doesn’t. He’s settled and comfortable, while she’s still searching (one small detail that leaves an impression; Julie works part-time at the same book store for the entire film, which transpires over the course of at least several years, never acquiring an actual career-type job). Like all of Trier’s films, The Worst Person in the World is remarkably assured, full of bold stylistic flourishes but grounded in recognizable human emotions. It’s been referred to by some as both a drama and a comedy, even a rom-com, but much like real life, there’s an inevitable and constant push-pull between both modes. Trier’s keen sense of momentum rivals Assayas, and his uncanny ability to succinctly depict volatile interior states is aided immeasurably by a remarkable variety of needle drops (the soundtrack shuffles through an eclectic mix of techno, pop, and punk rock that would put Scorsese to shame).
Equal parts erudite and playful, Trier’s roving camera captures the quotidian rhythms of everyday life just as intimately as the intensity of locking eyes with a stranger, or of getting drunk and launching an impromptu dance party at another’s house. It’s a fluid, dynamic film, utilizing occasional omniscient third-person narration to fascinating effect, condensing days and months into snappy montages that allow Trier to pack a huge amount of incident into a standard two-hour runtime. There’s an occasional misstep, like a bizarre dream sequence that mutates into a grotesque visualization of Julie’s fears of aging and potential motherhood, but they are few and far between. The Worst Person in the World bursts at the seams with ideas, its youthful subject told through the perspective of an older person who’s been through it all and lived to tell the tale. It’s messy and complicated, with a stunning performance from the beguiling Reinsve, who manages to be charming despite her character’s history of terrible decisions. The film’s epilogue finds her in a new stage of her life, “not so young anymore”, and finally utilizing the skills from one of her many aborted college majors. Maybe true adulthood is all about forgetting the past and finding a new “golden rhythm.” Either way, Julie isn’t the worst person in the world. She’s just trying to find her way, like the rest of us.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Marx Can Wait
One of the great canonical directors of Italian cinema, Marco Bellocchio attends Cannes 2021 as both the recipient of an Honorary Palme d’Or and as an entrant in the Cannes Premiere section, debuting his latest nonfiction feature, Marx Can Wait. It’s a fitting film to be screened in conjunction with the awardance of what is essentially a lifetime achievement award, an intimate documentary that primarily plays out as conversations between Bellocchio and his family, with noteworthy clips from his filmography interspersed. An infrequent documentarian (his last was in 2002), there is an urgency to the undertaking of this production that’s noted by Bellocchio in voiceover at the film’s open, he and his siblings’ advanced ages making it impossible to know how many more occasions they may have to all be in each other’s company at the same time. But this reunion is more Marx Can Wait’s setting than its subject, a venue where the Bellocchio’s can discuss the film’s actual focus: Marco’s twin brother Camillo, who committed suicide just shy of 30 in 1968.
Bellocchio constructs the film’s narrative linearly, interviews with siblings and in-laws, and conversations between Marco and his adult children edited so as to provide a chronological sequence of events from childhood up through the aftermath of Camillo’s tragic, untimely passing. A life-altering event for the Bellocchio siblings (and Camillo’s widow, also deceased, represented here by her sister), Marco has them recount memories of their brother, while leaving them room to theorize on his drives and character, ultimately amounting to a portrait of the man both detailed and compromised by the subjectivities and projections of his family members; though of course, this makes his depiction no less honest. For Marco, being Camillo’s twin, the suicide carries a heightened metaphorical significance, one that, he admits, has informed much of his work. And indeed, to underline this point, several films from across Bellocchio’s filmography make their way into Marx Can Wait, themes of martyrdom and disillusionment with the nuclear family resurfacing throughout, suicide a common plot point. The director has no reservations about interrogating himself in this way, nor does he close himself off from the judgements of those he interviews (particularly his late sister-in-law’s sister, whose outsider perspective necessarily undercuts Marco on a few occasions), his goal with this production to reach some understanding of a brother few truly knew in life. Though of course, we end up learning as much about those speaking on Camillo as we do the man himself, and this is where Marx Can Wait is most affecting, its depiction of a family processing decades-old grief honest and totally unvain. A careful examination of regret and the elusivity of catharsis, Marx Can Wait is a beautiful late work from an artist still pushing the limits of his self-exploration.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Radu Muntean might not be as well known in the U.S. as his Romanian New Wave compatriots Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, or Corneliu Porumboiu, but he’s been putting together a small, quietly devastating body of work, honing in on the lives of ordinary people and watching the fault lines appear under mounting stress. His new film, Întregalde, proceeds along this path as well, even threatening to turn into a thriller at points, but instead builds steadily to something altogether more oblique and mysterious. Following a group of volunteer aid workers in the Apuseni Mountains in Transylvania who deliver food and medical attention to poor villagers, Muntean’s camera gradually accumulates behavioral and narrative details that subtlety comment on a variety of dichotomies — rural and urban, wealth and poverty, man and woman — while simultaneously investigating the nature of altruism and how we treat the elderly and infirm. It’s a film about ethics, ultimately, although it goes about its business so subtly that one might not notice until its final scenes.
Întregalde begins with a flurry of activity, as several large groups of well-appointed weekend warriors pack bags full of goods, before setting off on winding roads to deliver their wares to the far reaches of the surrounding areas. Muntean quickly sketches in a variety of characters, as these people make small talk and fuss about who’s driving with whom and in which car. There’s a sense of what Muntean is up to when almost immediately one of the men crows about gifting a young child a new tablet device; he’s basking in unearned adulation, and when one of the women gently reminds him that he hasn’t volunteered in several years, and that the child would be grateful to anyone for such a gift, he quickly turns petulant and sarcastic. Indeed, Muntean, along with his regular co-writers Razvan Radulescu and Alexandru Baciu, has a gift for revealing people’s true natures with minimal exposition or fuss; instead, they allow things to emerge organically through actions and off-the-cuff snippets of dialogue. The story eventually settles on Maria (Maria Popistasu), Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu), and Dan (Alex Bogdan), who first visit an elderly woman who has an injured hand. Maria seems genuinely concerned for the woman’s welfare, while Dan complains about being hungover and Ilinca chatters on about her love life. En route to their next stop, the trio pick up an old man who’s wandering the muddy, unpaved back roads. He says his name is Kente (played by non-professional actor Luca Sabin, a resident of the real Întregalde village) and that he’s heading to a nearby sawmill. They agree to take him there, thinking it will be a shortcut back to the main road. But soon their SUV gets stuck in the mud, and the old man wanders off while the three of them struggle to get the vehicle moving.
Here, at roughly the halfway point, the film expands and diverges in fascinating ways. After the vehicle gets stuck a second time, Dan decides to walk to the sawmill himself, hoping to intercept Kente and get directions back to town. Maria and Ilinca stay behind, trying to reach the other cars via radio and cell phone. They seem more relaxed now that the moody Dan is gone, but when a Roma man and his adolescent son come across the scene and offer assistance, Maria and Ilinca let slip both racist and classist jokes. After an aborted towing attempt, the man and his son leave, but not before mentioning that Kente is senile, frequently wandering off to a dilapidated shack that used to be the sawmill. The men agree to take Ilinca there to find Dan, who has now been gone for some time, while Maria is left alone, still trying to reach someone on the phone. Ilinca eventually returns to the narrative, as does Dan, but now Maria is concerned that Kente will freeze to death overnight in the frigid mountain temperatures. There’s not much more to the plot than this, at which point the trio has to decide what to do about Kente; Dan has already had a run in with Kente at the old mill and discovered on his own the old man’s reduced mental capacity. He doesn’t care at all, declaring it too cold to go back, and (reasonably) wondering how they would physically force Kente to return to the car with them even if they found him. Maria stands firm, terrified by the idea of Kente dying. Ilinca is on the phone arguing with a boyfriend, oblivious to the parallel drama playing out just a few feet away from her.
Muntean unfolds all of this with a distinct novelistic sensibility; at any given moment, one of our three main characters is absent from the narrative, while other personalities flit in and out of the story. Eventually, the narrative pivots yet again, and Kente takes over, gradually becoming a main character himself. At times, there’s almost a slapstick quality to the proceedings, as Muntean stages multiple bits of action simultaneously — Dan frantically trying to keep Kente from leaving the car, while Ilinca fumes at being left behind by herself and Maria tries to keep Dan calm. It’s almost funny, in a bone-dry kind of way, until the four settle in for a long night with no hope of rescue until morning. Despite warnings of wolves and other dangers lurking in the dark, nothing particularly dramatic happens to our motley crew. The film ends quietly, now focused almost entirely on Kente, as he washes himself in the home of a village neighbor. Gone are the city folk with their largely useless technology — cars, radios, and phones failing to function properly is a recurring theme — leaving us instead with images of an old, forgotten community on the edges of civilization. There’s no didactic moral here, no suggestion that the old ways are better than the new, or even a condemnation of the volunteers. There’s no bad guys or good guys, just a sense that whatever the good intentions of our samaritans, it’s done little or nothing to help these villagers out of poverty. In one final irony, it’s these poor people who provide aid to Maria and Ilica (stubborn to the end, Dan stays behind to watch the car). Is Maria a good person for demanding they help Kente? And are Kente’s neighbors bad people for being fed up with taking care of him? It’s a tricky film, slow-paced and shifty as it continually tweaks and alters its narrative. Like the best stories, it lingers long after it’s over, revealing new facets as one mulls it over. There’s nothing glitzy or stylistically audacious on display, just the pleasures of a human-scaled story expertly told.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Mariner of the Mountains
Per the film’s opening titles, calentura, of Latin root, denotes the quality of being warm. Referring to the phrenic, feverish nights of mariners, brought to the deck at night and sighting meadows and white flowers upon the crests of waves, the term has been used over the centuries of seafaring; the mad sailors, caught in a feverish lust for life, are the titular mariners of mountains, sailing over imagined crests of hills in a place they can only dream of. Karim Aïnouz considers himself one of them — less a sailor than a wanderer, assembling a fantasy of his father’s homeland and the mountains he could have known as his own in another life. A letter to a mother he recently lost, and a father he never knew, Mariner of the Mountains is an exercise in unfolding a familial history out of the lineage of entire nations. Aïnouz travels to his father’s Algeria for the first time in the summer of 2019, and high up in the Atlas mountains, a region denoted Kabylia, he meets extended family and finds the birthright into a society freed from French colonial rule. From green-glowing microorganisms to soldiers fighting for independence, all of this living and breathing world is taken in through the eyes of a child for the first time.
Aïnouz is a notedly skilled melodramatist, and these emotive stylings present in two of his best-known fiction features, Love for Sale and Invisible Life, carry their weight in the visuals alone. Red filters, heavy grain, fragmented light, and the splicing of archival footage of both military occupation and revolutionaries side by side displace our eyes with the same disorienting effect the journey to the unseen homeland has. Mariner of the Mountains plays with the idea of a duo, once upon a time the same but now living disparate lives, not quite an analogue to the sisters of Invisible Life but valuable as a recurring theme. In Algeria, the director meets another man by the name of Karim Aïnouz, and it is this doppelgänger that prompts him to envision the alternate existence he would have led had his father not left their family before his birth. A young girl is by the documentarian’s side through much of this trip, offering to hold his camera; one of many subjects, ranging from children on the street to a goat with long, curling horns and a sneering smile, centrally framed and locking eyes with their unseen audience. We, whether standing from the vantage point of Brazil or the perspective of the director’s mother, are meant to meet eyes with Algeria, to survey it in all its living geography. The travel diary form is brought to life well because it never falls into empty musings on a place — there is a clear reconnection with genealogy, of a place held in firm reverence.
Mariner of the Mountains is not intended as a standalone film, and its partner within a dyad with Nardjes A is what significantly weakens the project. Having screened at the Berlinale in 2020, the latter follows a day in the life of a young activist, shot on a smartphone for International Women’s Day. Barring Aïnouz’s lush imagery and rich character studies, what’s troubling with this precursor is how little it actually engages with the politics it tapes experientially, merely celebrating the act of being present in Algeria without delving into its political dimensions (of legislature, pacifist mentalities, etc.). The director considers this minor work of his to be a sequel in his connection drawn between Algeria and Brazil, but there is a sour taste left knowing that this minor work whose footing it struggles to find is part of the poetic image of Mariner of the Mountains. What works beautifully as a personal family project becomes, given this contextual incursion, somewhat diluted, a poetry in motion slowed down by its counterpart’s pat verses.
Writer: Sarah Williams
Anna Podskalská’s Red Shoes presents a popular and insidious trend within contemporary animated cinema at the moment, with its animation style aping the oil-painting-on-canvas approach taken with critical darling Loving Vincent from a few years previous. This specific style isn’t one that lacks some level of base praise, albeit more for the time that was put into the final product than what was allocated for storyboarding, but it feels entirely like a technical flex searching for a pronounced visual aesthetic. Some issues to work out upfront to help clarify this stance: The bulky and thick brush strokes that comprise each character restricts their movement into more obvious gestures, taking out most of the motion from anything that’s not a central object. So while each individual frame is being painted, only a few sections of the composition are being affected, making for some stiff gestures and lifeless backgrounds. It also never looks particularly good as a general practice, coming off as crude and unmemorable by most modern animation standards — hell, even the carbon-copy thick-line CalArts style of most running American cartoons has a little something more of a visual flair going for it than stuff of this ilk.
What’s so unique to animation and it’s inherent sensibilities is the artistic liberation afforded by this mode of expression, not immediately concerned with representing reality or any indexicality. So why limit what one’s able to accomplish within their given medium or art form? This type approach brings with it an air of respectability from types who usually wouldn’t be caught dead watching something animated (i.e., clearly for children and only them), so maybe that’s why artists are perfectly fine operating within this clunky technique. Even disregarding all of that and attempting to view the short on its own terms, it’s still severely lacking in anything exciting. The basic narrative outline involves a young girl who begins to dance uncontrollably whenever she wears these devilish red shoes, and that limiting conceit fairly confines the film (though to be fair, the simplicity here is probably a product of its source material). The end to this short conflict? She has her legs cut off by some Baba Yaga-esque figure wielding a scythe, teaching her the all important lesson that… dancing is bad? At least during those sections, things become more jovial, as the brownish color palette contrasts against the crimson fury of those cardinal loafers, the only moments of inspiration that don’t feel distinctly try-hard and deadening in their meager aspirations.
Writer: Paul Attard