Frequent In Review Online contributor Evan Morgan once posited a more refined version of the slow cinema paradigm that has come to dominate festival films over the past two decades: hammock cinema, in which films that appear to reject storytelling actually rely on a tightly woven narrative structure, upon which the more readily apparent free-floating atmosphere and extended shots are given an elegance and order. His lodestar is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, quite probably the most important director to make his debut in this century. Despite boasting just six fully-fledged feature films in twenty years, the Thai director has exerted an enormous influence on festival cinema, with his use of forested landscapes and unconventional story structures deployed in order to create a sense of the somnambulant that’s inextricable from his interest in the supernatural and the violent past of his nation.
Six years since his last film Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong has returned with Memoria, his first film set outside of Thailand, with professional actors, and in a foreign language, or rather two — Spanish and English. It follows Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a British orchidologist living in Colombia who, while visiting Bogotá, begins to hear a mysterious, loud, thudding sound at seemingly random moments. Her interactions weave in and out of relation with this developing affliction, including with her temporarily bedridden sister (Agnes Brekke), her brother-in-law (Daniel Giménez Cacho, of Zama fame), a forensic archaeologist named Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), and Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer. In an especially hypnotic scene in a film practically filled with nothing else, he helps Jessica recreate the sound that has been haunting her, working from a movie sound effects library and shifting the echo, bass, and shape of the wave to form, in Jessica’s words, “a rumble from the core of the earth.”
As might be suggested by this, Memoria focuses on a single main character to a greater degree than any of his previous films; even while Jenjira Pongpas served as the pensive anchor of four of his previous films, her presence was intertwined and mixed with various other focal points. Befitting her arthouse star status, Swinton, in easily her greatest performance in years, takes the center stage for practically every scene in at least the first half of the film. Her signature, slightly alien presence, which has admittedly run the risk of parody in recent years, is wondrously molded by Apichatpong; in the first scene, when she is awoken by the loud noise, her movement suggests a ghost, or perhaps a zombie — it’s notable that Jessica shares the same name as the ethereal figure of Jacques Tourneur’s iconic I Walked With a Zombie. Her manner of movement, lithe but tentative, frequently blending into the environment during the many long shots, only accentuates an acute difference in setting from the endless Thai forests: in the first half of the film, there is a new, pronounced focus on architecture and the city, shown both with teeming throngs of people and at a standstill.
Working again with regular DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and on 35mm for the first time since Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong finds the shifting textures in these spaces, in the unpredictable dance of light that gives further shape to the series of strange incidents peppered throughout: a backfiring bus that causes a pedestrian to drop to the ground, car horns that go off for no apparent reason, a hospital bench as a makeshift lock. In response, his style has shifted somewhat: there is a greater emphasis on duration, on a certain kind of pensive distance that his disciples from afar have adopted. But this is unmistakably Apichatpong, not only in his total willingness to vary his approach as the shot and scene necessitates, but in the rich sense of character and circumstance, each scene and camera placement contributing, whether elliptically or directly, to a sense of the world that this woman is inhabiting and attempting to understand.
About the second half, which is solely made up of an encounter Jessica has in the rural municipality of Pijao with a mysterious man (Elkin Díaz), the less said the better. Suffice it to say that this last hour is one of the most extraordinary, focused, and sustained sequences of the past decade, a slow unfurling of personal and national pasts that intermingle and mutate, conveyed via the most entrancing of means. It all comes back to the sound: not only that indescribable slam, but also the snatches of music, the vaguely unsettling ambiance. If one of the principal pleasures of a hammock is how it can sway in the wind, then it can be said that Apichatpong understands precisely how to capture the essence of that entrancing motion.
Writer: Ryan Swen
The cinema of veteran English auteur Terence Davies has always been concerned with outsiders, whether these are people who live their lower-class lives on the outskirts of society or the highbrow individuals who stand against their elitist social trappings. In 2016’s A Quiet Passion, Davies took as his subject the life and work of one of literature’s most famous outsiders, American poet Emily Dickinson, and he returns to the writer well with Benediction, a biopic of the bright-minded British poet and WWI soldier, Siegfried Sassoon — played by charming Scottish actor Jack Lowden as the young Siegfried and Peter Capaldi as his older version. Sassoon — known for his fiery anti-war rhetoric, as a fierce critic of the day’s authoritative jingoism, and as a wounded spirit who’s mainly surrounded by narcissistic lovers — is indeed a perfect character for a Davies’ film which not only revolves around his recurring notions of fatally-oppressed yearnings, loss, the transient joys of life, and the everlasting burdens of grief and regret, but which also represents a deeply personal auto-portrait for the Liverpudlian master.
Davies’ virtuosity in shaping a very articulate style — both in terms of direction and writing — will likely be obvious to most viewers. Although, understandably for some, the obsessively controlled and refined academic theatrics and literary-fueled aesthetic — elegant compositions, scrupulous static staging and figural postures, frequent symmetrical shots, non-stop aphoristic dialogues — which he has specifically tended toward in recent years might be regarded as stilted and grandiose, broadly bare of the free-flowing, less excessively cerebral nature of his earlier (and better) films. But even if such criticisms are valid to some degree, they don’t necessarily reveal the whole truth about Davies’ later approach, which is even more evident in Benediction. The fact is, fortunately, Davies’ style here (as was also the case in A Quiet Passion) is delicately grounded between being both prosaic and poetic, where the subtle nuances and warm impressions of emotionality still get to manifest themselves underneath the solid, more-or-less impenetrable visual and verbal surface. And indeed, some of the most touching scenes in Benediction are when Davies masterfully connects the different verses from Sassoon’s poems to the various real-life situations, characters, and moments that empirically inspired his art and imagination.
It’s as if here Davies deliberately intends to subvert from within the typical, prim Anglo-Saxon academicism of what one, for example, can usually find in BBC teleplays and historical biopic docs or in the sentimentality of Jane Austen’s popular novels (which the director openly expressed his aversion for). Davies, who previously delivered one of the most singular essay-films of all time with 2008’s Of Time and the City, interweaves grainy black-and-white archival footage from WWI throughout Benediction, and if the film begins as a kind of mix of painterly tableaux (comparable to Gustav Deutsch’s cinematic snapshots of Edward Hopper paintings in Shirley: Visions of Reality) with something like the work of Michael Almereyda (for his anachronism and remarkable use of moving pictures in the background), it gradually unravels itself, evoking the mingled atmosphere of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (especially during a party scene), a combination of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship and James Ivory’s Maurice, and obviously, the earlier films of Davies himself.
And so, in the same way that Sassoon’s memories are filled and scarred with traumas and haunted memories and cherished experiences, Davies’ Benediction reveals itself to be a film whose unconscious seems to be stamped all over by an extensive recollective history of art, literature, and cinema too. It’s a beautiful, profound, and indeed a very melancholic character study — never totally deprived of a humorous or satirical mood — through which the maverick septuagenarian portrays the never-ending horrors of the trenches, the absurdities of war, and the unfulfilled hopes and dreams for regaining lost loves and times. And if Davies’ elaborate modus operandi corresponds directly to Sassoon’s loquacious and encompassing environment, it’s only right that in the final serene scene, Davies’ subversive style and his leading character get to break away from all the suffocating boundaries, letting the most subdued feelings benevolently burst out into silent, lonely tears, deep shivers, and soul-wrenching heartache.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Laurent Cantet stumbles badly with Arthur Rambo, a topical provocation on cancel culture and the evils of social media that feels both toothless and weirdly outdated. A filmmaker known for his humanistic approach to tales of social injustice, Cantet has always managed to find the beating heart that lurks beneath the seemingly banal headlines and statistics that clog newspapers and television news stations on a daily basis, whether it be the tolls of widespread unemployment and corporate greed (Time Out, Human Resources) or the struggles of a failing education system (The Class). Cantet typically employs a documentary-like approach to rendering his subjects, and that style is likewise on full display in Arthur Rambo, as we follow the wildly successful young author Karim D. (Rabah Nait Oufella) over the course of 36 hours as he goes from the toast of the town to social pariah after a series of past inflammatory tweets is discovered, written under the titular pseudonym.
One of the film’s earliest sequences is also one of its best, as Karim’s reaction to the media’s discovery of his alias plays out in real time, its devastating effects unfolding at a launch party for his critically-acclaimed second novel. As the glow of phone screens fills the frame, eyes lighting upon the breaking controversy, partygoers start to shun the rising star, friends abandon his side, and a hastily assembled meeting reveals that his publisher will no longer support or promote the man they hailed as a genius mere minutes before. It’s in moments like these that Cantet reveals a keen understanding of the ferocity of social media, its ability to chew up and spit out its victims in a matter of seconds, the unending bloodlust it creates and fuels within its users. But to label Karim a victim is a dubious enterprise, as the tweets in question number in the thousands and run the gamut from anti-Semitic to homophobic to fat-shaming. Karim sees Arthur Rambo as a social and artistic experiment, a creation mocking those fascists who embrace the insidious ideals the “character” is espousing. As Karim himself states, “The only thing the two of us share is our anger.” And so, over the course of its brief 86 minutes, Arthur Rambo attempts to question the legitimacy of Karim’s defenses and intellectual maneuvers. How can such monstrous thoughts co-exist in a man currently being hailed for his sensitive work on his mother’s struggles as an Algerian political refugee in modern-day France? Can one ever truly separate the artist from the art? Most of Arthur Rambo consists of Karim moping around Paris, running into various friends and family who question his motives and identity, chastising him for his actions.
And that, then, is the film’s biggest problem: Karim is a blank slate, a flaw that exists by design so that audience members — and Cantet — can project whatever is necessary onto him in its portrait of cancel culture, but it also makes the character bland and uncompelling. What transpires is nothing more than a series of interchangeable scenes in which characters ask topical questions concerning the film’s subject matter, with Cantet showing an unwillingness to dig beneath the surface and instead vibe with the pat sanctimony of this film-long lecture. Karim’s friends knew about the tweets and laughed about them before, but now they are indignant; does their hypocrisy exclude them from being culpable? Karim’s teen brother defends the tweets, saying he gave voice to a section of France’s population that has been mocked and kicked to the ghettos. As both an Arab and a Muslim, what roles do ethnicity and religion play in the response to these tweets? Is Karim reflective of or responsible for an entire people simply because of his success? All are important questions, but Cantet presents them like he is giving a B- high school class presentation, hitting the bullet points but failing to explicate them beyond their innate provocation. In past works, this sort of approach seemed purposeful, a way of humanizing his flawed subjects and inviting thoughtful discussion on their actions while refusing to cast judgment. Here, it’s a cop-out, especially in the film’s utter shrug of an ending, which comes across like Cantet simply giving up. As he has proven with such flawed past projects as The Workshop and Heading South, Cantet is incapable of making a truly bad film per se, but that doesn’t mean Arthur Rambo isn’t as ill-conceived and half-assed as such ostensibly “heady” materials gets.
Writer: Steven Warner
It seems that director Theodore Melfi has never met a subject where he felt he couldn’t sand off its rough edges and inherent coarseness and turn it into utter pablum, whether it be the devastating effects of divorce on children (St. Vincent) or the entire Civil Rights Movement and its intersection with workplace equality (Hidden Figures). That trend continues with The Starling, in which Melfi, reunited with his St. Vincent star Melissa McCarthy, tells the story of a married couple dealing with the devastating loss of their child. Husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd), following an attempted suicide, has retreated to the relative safeness of a mental health facility, blaming himself for his daughter’s death as a result of SIDS; wife Lily (McCarthy) has been unable to go through the proper grieving process due to the distraction of her husband’s depression and a general unwillingness to confront the inevitable. But the sudden appearance of the titular bird in her front yard forces Lily to break out of her comfort zone, serving as the ultimate metaphor as she seeks therapy from a local psychiatrist turned veterinarian (Kevin Kline) who uses the bird as an excuse for intermittent sessions. As Lily attempts to deal with the surprisingly agile and violent animal, she inadvertently tackles the five stages of grief, because of course she does. And every once in a while, an original tune from the likes of The Lumineers and Brandi Carlile fills the soundtrack as characters do various activities while looking sad, because when “bland” is your mode, why not pile on?
The script for The Starling, courtesy of first-time screenwriter Matt Harris, has been on the Hollywood Black List for 18 years, which should tell you everything you need to know about the film. But in fairness, like Melfi’s previous efforts, The Starling is by no means a terrible movie; he at least always manages to get notable, committed performances from his stacked casts, and this one is no different. McCarthy, freed from the shackles of her atrocious filmmaker husband Ben Falcone, delivers a strong dramatic performance that may lack the nuance of her work in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but nuance is never Melfi’s intent, and so her work here maximizes the material. O’Dowd, for his part, fares better, delivering a legitimately great performance and executing a killer monologue near the film’s end about the lifelong effects of depression that should earn him plenty of more opportunities for serious fare in the future.
But despite that high point, the problem is that everything here is too derivative and heavy-handed, its emotionally manipulative streak visible from space. And Melfi’s direction is as standard as can be expected, ladling on the Golden Hour shots whenever his characters are going through some sort of emotional catharsis, or rain-filled gray skies when they are sad. In a rather surprising development, there is more CGI in this production than the last three Star Wars films combined, and none of it is ever convincing. The bird is entirely a creation of zeros and ones and looks about as refined as that sounds, as are the various bits of trash it picks up for its nest, an obviously necessary touch. The entire film suffers from an obvious case of Green Screen-itis, with even something as innocuous as a car skidding on a rain-soaked highway is rendered digitally, because apparently no stunt drivers don’t deserve work. That’s not to pile on, but to speak to a general, pervasive laziness that seems to drive the entire production. Still, a film that has Kline stroking what appears to be a narcotized cat while uttering the words “I don’t rap” can’t be a complete loss, so there we are. The Starling is undoubtedly for the birds, but Melfi’s expected inoffensiveness makes it impossible to outright hate it; that would imply the film is capable of provoking any kind of reaction other than a blank stare.
Writer: Steven Warner
To Kill the Beast
Shot on location in a small town on the border between Brazil & Argentina, writer/director Agustina San Martín’s To Kill the Beast occupies a woozy, liminal space between coming-of-age narrative and dreamy reverie. In her video introduction to the film, San Martín calls it an “exorcism of sorts,” although it’s not until the film’s end that it becomes clear what exactly is being cast out. There’s a skeletal narrative here, involving a young woman named Emilia (Tamara Rocca) who is searching for her brother Mateo. Their mother has died, and Emilia wishes to reconnect with the brother whom she hasn’t seen in years. Traveling to Mateo’s last known address, Emilia begins boarding with her peculiar Aunt Ines (Ana Brun), who runs a dilapidated hostel, and calls on her sister, Helena (Sabrina Grinschpun), to help in her hunt for Mateo. All of this is relayed in peculiar, vague ways, as San Martín and cinematographer Constanza Sandoval emphasize foggy, mist-shrouded landscapes and cryptic, off-kilter establishing shots. Eventually, Emilia meets another guest at Ines’ hostel, Julieth (Julieth Micolta), and the two begin a cautious flirtation of sorts. Complicating matters is a wild bull wandering the forest, which the locals are convinced is possessed by the spirit of an evil man and which must be put down. More a symbolic presence than an actual threat, this bull wanders the periphery of the film like a free-floating metaphor, representing whatever ills the townsfolk wish to project onto it.
Mateo, too, is a structuring absence rather than a character — he is neither seen nor heard throughout the film. Indeed, To Kill the Beast floats between these kinds of evocative, poeticized motifs and the very physical nature of Emilia and Julieth’s burgeoning relationship. The pair go to dances and drink with other young people in rapturous scenes of kinetic movement and somatic sensuality — call it the duality between the corporeal and the ethereal. At some point, a local mentions to Emilia that the place in which they live is “porous”; he’s speaking literally of the border between the neighboring countries, but of course San Martín also intends it in a more abstract sense, as this permeable boundary also comes to mean fluidity of sexuality and nationality. The film ends with a bit of a thud; it’s revealed that Mateo was in fact sent away to this town and ostracized from his family for an unspecified violent episode, which San Martín conflates with the bull — both become symbols for patriarchal power. Emilia’s eventual confrontation with the bull doesn’t carry the charge that San Martín seems to think it does, but the palpable chemistry between Emilia and Julieth is really the heart of the film anyway. As a portrait of a small enclave of women banding together to reclaim their space and their pleasure from men, To Kill the Beast is a lovely piece of work.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Not even Haley Lu Richardson’s expected luminosity can save the plainness of the protracted, estranged family drama Montana Story. Seven years after Richardson’s Erin left her family’s ranch in Montana, her abusive, dodgy lawyer of a father lays comatose in his study after suffering a stroke. First to come home is Erin’s brother, Cal, played stoically and reservedly by Owen Teague, who takes on the estate responsibility and settlements of familial debts as his dad’s final days tick by under the care of Ace, a passive Gilbert Owuor. It’s a conversation between Ace and Cal that divulges all of the family details in the most dramatically unsatisfying, expository fashion, removing agency from Erin and offering only scenery for Richardson to chew. Despite missed opportunities like these, the film still features a strong, albeit recognizable bit of performance: Richardson shines as a frustrated runaway who’s abandoned some of her country foibles but has brought her ranch skills to Upstate New York, working as a chef at a farm-to-table restaurant. Her guards are up, she’s distrustful of her father’s condition and her brother’s intentions, but as the scope of her childhood trauma comes into view, she trades in scoffs and irritation for reserved contrition and acceptance. Teague’s performance is firm yet sweet, portraying the handy country boy and steady family member handsomely and appropriately blandly, his gorgeous, understated denim and western wear often shining more colorfully than the role. But both are often let down by a script that struggles with overtness — even in the most impassioned scene, as Cal and Erin gaze across seemingly infinite land and discuss Dante’s Inferno and the circles of hell, the wheels turn too much, making too much of a false point of Erin’s distance from her home.
The film, shot in 35mm by Giles Nuttgens and edited by Isaac Hagy, relies on stately craft conventions like elegant, endless fades to black and a bevy of wide shots. Yes, Montana looks gorgeous, from the big blue sky to the hollowed-out, never-ending depths of the copper mines, but that only speaks to how photogenic the mountainous vistas are and not to the artfulness or intentionality of the camerawork. There’s something to be said for letting nature signify and speak for itself, but it doesn’t work when the story is so dull, a film so transparently of its time and one that relies on over-done family dynamics. In an introduction played before the film, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, familiar names in TIFF’s programming, speak of their inspiration — the pandemic — throwing around thin buzzwords like “family” and “regret.” The question, then, is what exactly about a once-in-a-lifetime crisis inspires such mawkish, familiar melodrama?
Writer: Tanner Stechnij