Credit: Berlinale
by InRO Staff Film Featured Festival Coverage

Art of the Real 2022 — Dispatch 1: Come Here, A Marble Travelogue, Beatrix

April 4, 2022

Come Here

Over the past twelve years, Anocha Suwichakornpong has developed one of the more elusive and protean bodies of work on the festival circuit. Seven years after her auspicious debut, Mundane History (2009), a destabilizing, achronological story of the burgeoning friendship between a sullen upper-class young man and the male nurse taking care of him, she made one of the most notable breakout features of the decade. 2016’s By the Time It Gets Dark begins as an examination of Thailand’s history of student resistance to dictatorship before pinwheeling off to form a dense network of embodied memories, parallel lives, and metafictions. Her next feature, Krabi, 2562, a 2019 collaboration with Ben Rivers, pared back some of these impulses in favor of a documentary hybrid dedicated to the exploration of the eponymous island.

With her new feature Come Here, Anocha has opted for what appears to be an even slighter approach, but one that in fact conceals a whole host of complexities. Running a slender 68 minutes (including five minutes of credits), the film principally follows a group of four theater actors from Bangkok, who embark on a getaway to a remote forest. Their stay is almost deliberately desultory and brief, mostly spent on what looks like a floating cabin docked on a river, as they drink, sunbathe, and engage in conversations that very slowly dole out previously withheld background information. Towards the end of the film, the actors restage this journey in a black-box setup, constructing a set of the cabin and recreating their conversations and activities almost word for word. Intertwined with this is a narrative as deliberately abstruse as the main plot is straightforward, focusing on a young researcher who appears to be undergoing a similar journey as the actors. However, this trip is much more eventful and marked with a mysterious tropical malady, complete with a startling morphing effect.

Such a summary doesn’t quite convey the strangeness of Come Here, and of Anocha’s approach to the material. She largely avoids intercutting these storylines, letting them play out in discrete chunks, so threads and even characters float in and out of their own narratives; at one point, one of the actors even pops up in the same scene as the young researcher without explanation. Shooting in 1.33:1 and muted black-and-white, Anocha generally favors long shots, but her technique varies; she goes so far as to include a few split screens along the middle of the y-axis of the frame, which let vast swaths of trees bleed into a city landscape, or to enable a vision of one of the actors in the forest to hover over an image of her sleeping in bed. That visualization of realities blending into each other helps illuminate the concealed thrust of Come Here, as does a protracted centerpiece scene where the actors imitate animals to the point of exhaustion. Both narratives, by clashing fluid identities — both performed and genuine — with quotidian realities, propose the forest as a realm of possibility and mystery, where performance can allow a person to move into a more primitive form of existence, which the actors try to recapture in some form back in the city.

Of course, this is not a novel framework, but what distinguishes Anocha’s approach is the deliberate de-emphasis of her film’s central concern, almost to the point of imperceptibility. This can result in a somewhat hazy, unsatisfying viewing experience; the characters in particular feel loosely defined. But in the way that it resists being pinned down and seems to transform in the mind, Come Here certainly feels of a piece with Anocha’s previous work. The surface pleasures are certainly there, but, whether in the wild disjunctions of narrative or the unexpected aesthetic ruptures, there is always the suggestion of something lurking just beneath the surface.

Writer: Ryan Swen


Credit: Rediance

A Marble Travelogue

Capturing the fuzzy conceptual and materialist fluidity of modern globalization has become something of a go-to subject for contemporary non-fiction film. It’s a huge, even abstract, phenomenon with almost limitless possibilities and variations to explore. Sean Wang’A Marble Travelogue is the latest entry in this burgeoning subgenre, exploring the journey of the eponymous material from quarries in Greece to factories in China, where it is repurposed as sculptural objects for the West and sent back to Europe. It’s a fascinating ouroboros of goods and services stuck in a never-ending chain of cultural exchange.

Wang begins his tour with a series of discrete vignettes that only begins to crystallize into something approaching a cohesive whole with the benefit of hindsight. We are first introduced to Mariana and Sophia Erotokritou, a pair of Greek twins in their early 20s who speak fluent Mandarin and record videos for their social media channels. Eventually, the film moves on from them to the more physical reality of marble, with scenes set in quarries as men inspect huge blocks of the stuff and talk shop. Shots of the Piraeus Port in Athens give a sense of the massive scale involved in this operation, as the camera sails with a huge cargo ship from Greece towards Quanzhou Port in the Taiwan Strait. Once on the Chinese mainland, Wang continues to seek out and interview various peoples who are directly involved with the marble’s trajectory from natural object to consumer good. There’s Congda Zhen, dubbed the “National Crafts Artist” by the government and who runs the Palace of Art & Sculpture. It’s a big business that involves copying Greco-Roman sculpture and selling the simulacra to clients around the world. Zhen also makes his own original works, and there is a fascinating, albeit barely explored, tangent about the artist selling his work under different names depending on the country he’s doing business in. He relays a story about stumbling across one of his pieces while abroad and confronting the realization that it’s being displayed under a pseudonym, meaning that once he dies no one will recognize his name. Eventually, environmental regulations and a European economic depression make it impossible for him to continue his business in China, and we leave him as he is deciding where to move his operations in search of cheaper labor. Suggestively, Wang follows these sequences with a brief portrait of a poor family working in a factory that repurposes marble dust and waste into other materials. Wang films the family — a mother with several young children — at the factory and at their home, where he asks a young girl if she is concerned about her health. She says she’s not, but lets slip a cough as she nods and smiles.

Less successful are the intermittent snippets of the Erotokritou twins, who reappear with some regularity throughout the film. After their early scenes in Greece, Wang catches up with them some time later as they have moved to China. Officially “cultural ambassadors,” they’re involved (along with their well-connected lawyer father) in facilitating tourism for rich Chinese citizens to travel to Greece. It appears to be on the up-and-up, but the patina of some kind of financial scheme hangs over the proceedings — whatever the case, this is a big business. Wang seems to think these young women are more interesting than they actually are, and while it’s likely he intends their journey to mirror that of the marble, perhaps conflating the two in a dialectic, it plays like a rhetorical gesture at best. Brief detours occasionally bring to mind the work of Jia Zhangke, particularly his film The World, arguably the key work of 21st-century modernism. And Wang is most successful with the brief snapshots that he uses to flesh out this journey — hypnotic close-ups of statues being crafted, sequences of bodies at work, a rollercoaster ride through reproductions of ancient Grecian ruins. There’s no denying that Wang has a keen photographer’s eye, but the structure of A Marble Travelogue becomes too diffuse and disorganized. Still, it’s a fascinating subject, and Wang has crafted a notable if imperfect addition to our understanding of this complex, confounding globalized economy.

Writer: Daniel Gorman


Beatrix

A directorial debut so strong that it was selected for both FIDMarseille’s First Film section and main International Competition in 2021, Austrian entry Beatrix is a major discovery, the work of two directors and an actor at the outset of their careers already with a defined perspective and a deft understanding of cinematic language. Though all involved have worked in the film industry and with each other in various capacities, Beatrix marks the first instance of Lilith Kraxner and Milena Czernovsky co-directing a film together, with their star, performance artist Eva Sommer (who was awarded Best Actress in the First Film category), also newly acquainted with the feature-length medium. A new configuration for this team and likely their most involved undertaking to date, but one wouldn’t so easily discern this watching Beatrix, an intimate, plain-spoken film, obviously the creation of artists thinking on a higher level.

Not dissimilar to other international competitor Outside Noise in the broadest sense (this year’s FIDMarseille was really well curated in that way), Beatrix pursues images that cinema often fails to hold space for, the toiling and bouts of boredom that the medium is usually thought of as an escape from. But as Kraxner & Czernovsky quickly demonstrate, this lack of depiction creates a faux taboo around certain images, opening up the possibility of making the mundane thrilling. Suddenly, the act of cleaning an oven or shaving an armpit takes on an intrigue one wouldn’t assume of such domestic chores, given life via gorgeous 16mm cinematography and inventive framing choices. What little plot there is essentially stands as an excuse to move the title character through these sorts of set pieces, following this young woman’s listless summer days, crashing at a big house by herself with the occasional visitor stopping by to briefly disrupt the tedium of these slow days. Kraxner, Czernovsky, and Sommer wrestle with the idea of how to depict the undepicted, particularly how to capture those moments where we are totally unobserved and vulnerable without indulging cinema’s tendency toward voyeurism. Sommer’s performance is essential to the project in this regard, entirely improvised though resembling something much more workshopped, a la the films of Maren Ade. She is able to negotiate the camera’s gaze and the need to achieve a sense of naturalism, essentially performing a non-performance. Kraxner & Czernovsky build on their actor’s work savvily, confronting the audience with her vulnerability, often presenting Sommer nude in the casual fashion one adopts when home alone, creating brilliant tension between camera, subject, and audience. Beatrix instantly establishes Kraxner, Czernovsky, and Sommer as major artists, pursuing lofty, risky ideas with verve and ingenuity — so exciting to see in a debut feature!

Writer: M.G. Mailloux


Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

When There Is No More Music to Write, and Other Roman Stories

Beginning life as a multimedia installation mixing sculpture, film, and paper archival documents, Éric Baudelaire’s When There Is No More Music to Write project has evolved into a new form, with a slightly addended title. Making its North American premiere at Film at Lincoln Center’s 2022 edition of Art of the Real, When There Is No More Music to Write, and Other Roman Stories presents a more concise, 60-minute cinematic rendition of Baudelaire’s exhibition, a research-heavy project undertaken with music historian Maxime Guitton that centers on the life and work of avant-garde composer Alvin Curran.

Somewhat disorienting initially, When There Is No More Music to Write begins with a pair of short prologues that inform the body of this text, kicking off with a contextless political anecdote entitled “Four Flat Tires” and then followed by “The Lost Score,” a short Super 8 mm visual made to accompany a rediscovered Curran piece. Both chapters attempt to lock into Curran’s particular rhythms early and establish a visual style that echoes the composer’s erratic, mixed-source compositions, before threading into the title chapter, “When There Is No More Music to Write.” Intermingling the newly shot Super 8 with era-appropriate archival footage, Baudelaire achieves a functional approximation of his subject’s approach, serving as a suitable backdrop for Curran’s voiceover and the sampling of his work that serves as the film’s score, though basically just that. One can see why Baudelaire finds Curran so beguiling, a tremendous figure in the context of contemporary classical avant-garde music whose work was born out of, and actively concerned itself with, the extreme political tumult that characterized Italy’s Years of Lead. Baudelaire, who began his career in the political sciences, directs When There Is No More Music to Write’s focus at the intersection of Curran’s activism and his art, with the way the two inform one another ultimately becoming filmmaker’s primary fixation. Somewhat disappointing after the unmoored, mysterious introductory chapters, When There Is No More Music to Write, and Other Roman Stories is at least an unconventional portrait of this particular artist that correctly connects the (debatably) elusive motivations of the mid-century avant-garde to explicit political event. It’s a neatly composed film that narrows (a bit too much) in scope as it unfolds.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux


We (Nous)

Cutting across Paris from the north to the south, the RER B is a commuter rail that shuttles passengers to and from the city center, moving between the northern Mitry-Mory commune and the southern Saint-Rémy-de-Provence commune. It is also the axis that Alice Diop’s documentary Nous moves along, the director alighting from the train at different suburban intervals — metropolitan Paris is but a structuring absence — to conduct interviews with the denizens of these far-flung townships, while rooting through her own memories associated with the RER B: as a child, her mother would leave for her job as a cleaning woman aboard the train before Diop was even awake.

There’s an ostensible interview structure at work in Nous, but also a refreshing lack of formalities, and Diop’s journey along the RER B is like a slipstream of past, present, and future, with personal and political histories swirling together — in this regard, her form feels beholden to Chantal Akerman’s similarly empirical documentaries. The filmmaking is largely contemporaneous, although there are dispatches from the past, manifesting as home videos of Diop’s family, stories told by interview subjects, museum exhibitions, and the like. Diop posits that a tenacious grip on memory is something that can be strengthened by privilege, and conversely, weakened by discrimination. An African man struggles with WhatsApp to call his mother who’s still back home; a group of wealthy, white Parisians enact a humorously archaic hunting ceremony, replete with bugles, feathered caps, and scores of bloodhounds. The former struggles to maintain living contact, the latter are gifted comparatively unlimited resources to preserve tradition the way they see fit. 

Diop’s visuals are as rich as they are rigorous, locating warm humanity within otherwise impersonal spaces. Armed with a purely observational tone, the incisiveness of the ways in which specific scenes relate to one another is on the viewer to deduce. Those two aforementioned passages come near the beginning and at the end of the film, respectively, rewarding those who’ve internalized what a less than willing participant may call “mundane.” The length (115 minutes) is felt, perhaps too much so, but Diop utilizes the time to display a consummate reconciliation of her proclivities as a documentarian, and as an artist.

Writer: Patrick Preziosi