Human Flowers of Flesh
Bouncing back from two years worth of Covid-related disruption while still riding out some major switch-ups and art direction, the Locarno Film Festival returned in 2022 with an international competition lineup more in keeping with the imagination and avant-garde leanings of the programs they put on for most of the 2010s. After a couple drier competitions, it’s nice to see that the iconic Swiss fest — celebrating its 75th anniversary — can still locate and properly champion an artist like Helena Wittmann, who, within the context of this current-day circuit, is relatively new and boasts an genuinely esoteric vision.
Though, of course, Wittmann isn’t a Locarno discovery exactly, her filmography consisting of eight short works going back to 2013 when she studied at HFBK Hamburg under Angela Schanelec, plus a previous feature, Drift. A beguiling, feature-length spiritual drama informed by the rhythms of the Atlantic Ocean, Drift impressed at Venice’s debut-centric International Critics’ Week sidebar back in 2017 with its structuralist ambitions and ingenious cinematography, executed by Wittmann herself. Much of the same can be said about this new film, Human Flowers of Flesh, which also concerns a woman undertaking a nautical odyssey in pursuit of some elusive, grand truth, yet it remains a totally a distinct work, taking a decidedly brighter and more leisurely approach to conjuring a similar sense of unease.
Featuring ever so slightly more plot than the previous feature, Human Flowers of Flesh centers on a yacht crew, in particular Ida (Angeliki Papoulia, making a welcome return to non-Greek cinema for the first time since The Lobster, seven years ago now), the presumed captain of this otherwise small, exclusively male collection of sailors and researchers. Starting out docked in Marseilles, Ida and co. indulge in the city’s nightlife, passing away the hours amongst dancing crowds under moody club lighting, the aims of their outfit obscure, but presumably unurgent. Purpose eventually manifests when Ida catches sight of the soldiers of the French Foreign Legion stalking the city streets and performing their strange, militaristic routines. Enchanted and unnerved, the crew chart a course across the Mediterranean sea to Algeria where they hope to locate the remains of the Legionnaire’s original headquarters, an infamous barracks abandoned at the violent end of French colonization in 1962.
Obvious comparisons to Beau Travail are leaned into with the participation of Denis Lavant, returning as that film’s Officer Galoup in this film’s closing minutes, but Wittmann’s ideas only echo Claire Denis’ in the broadest sense, abstracting that carnal melodrama into something elemental, a critique of imperialism based in a consideration of our place within the natural world. Acting as her own cinematographer once more, Wittmann shoots on warm, occasionally, appealingly blemished 16mm stock, prioritizing what would generally be used as background for the subject. So, forest trails, pavement, brush, the surface of a pool, etc. often dominate the frame, leaving human subjects just outside or positioned so as to equate them with their surroundings. What little dialogue there is — a lot of it just characters reading aloud from books about the Foreign Legion’s history — is given weight beyond immediate mundane context as such, casting Ida’s expedition as one moving back through time, disintegrating their chronal remove from the Legionnaires not only through their exploration of historical text but also of the sea and geography they once occupied. Its Guinea Pig-esque title suggesting something more gruesome, or at least cynical, Human Flowers of Flesh is really a sunny, cerebral outing, proposing a reverence for nature and the way in which it enshrines and bears the brunt of human ego and projection. That this is conveyed almost entirely through suggestive framing and clever, patient editing is all the more remarkable, Wittmann’s fairly unique formal approach already realized and well-honed in only her second feature.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Where is This Street? or With No Before or After
Lisbon plays itself in Where Is This Street? or With No Before or After, the first collaboratively directed film from partners João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata since The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012). But the city has been typecast. Reverent and rigid cinephiles, the structural thread for this tossed-off pandemic film is that the duo’s 16mm camera will follow the locations of Paulo Rocha’s The Green Years (1963) scene by scene. It will seem to do this, to the uninitiated, as a strict game, but the progression is in fact rather loose: there is choreography, but it still has to be interpreted. The images from Rocha’s film that have the strongest sense of composition, such as a gutter-view window looking onto a street, or a long-shot summation of an unraveling, muddied relationship, are not recreated. Instead, each scene is traveled through, in a closed-off, though spontaneously lensed and edited, recreation.
It has been nearly six decades since Rocha’s film began what came to be termed Portugal’s Cinema Nova, and so Lisbon’s most overt changes, in architecture and in cinema, would seem to be the star. There is no voiceover, which was used to establish continuity in Macao, nor is there any free-floating dialogue from Rocha’s film. Aside from the filmmakers’ typically cringeworthy cameos, scenes do not feature any onscreen actors or speaking parts, though there is one notable exception. Carlos Parades’ renowned fado score is similarly unused, which would seem to suggest mere nostalgia is not of interest. But despite the way the duo tease out the eternal problems of beginning again when the presence of the old masters lingers, this is a sedate and unserious movie. Time is made for Covid ironies and slapstick, but not for any modulation in image or text that would complicate our consideration of Rocha’s film, let alone the scrim of this one.
The filmmakers’ strongest interventions into their structural conceit supply some possible readings. They devise paeans to the goddesses of cinema (Jane Russell in Macao; Isabel Ruth, who appears in an interlude and a finale, in Where Is This Street?). They record the presence of historical ghosts in everyday life; hence the sudden whip-snaps to the attention of the camera. And they pay tribute to the cinema’s ability to act as a memory device, sending one further downstream in the flow of time with each recurrence. (The film’s one extract from The Green Years is of Paulo Renato musing on age and art: “When we grow up and become men, it is a different novel. It is the novel of lifting one’s life and placing it high up, so no one can step on it.”)
All of these ideas, which are external to the world of Rocha’s film, are considered sufficiently half-developed for the purpose of their essay. The return to an unrecognizably changed home is one of the great archetypal narratives, but in both Macao and Where Is This Street?, the experience of this dislocation is so obscured and individualized one could say it is nowhere to be found in the movie, which seems, having etched a canonical mark upon Rocha’s legacy, to await the application of sociological or anthropological analysis to its images.
Writer: Michael Scoular
Far too many movies demand far too little from viewers. Maybe they aren’t asking the right questions, or perhaps the questions themselves are just going over our heads — or, more accurately, it could be because they aren’t really asking anything all that penetrating in the first place. Feature-length films, for the most part, like to set up a primary figure for identification, saddle them with a series of relatable motives and conflicts, and eventually, at one point or another, resolve their problems in a neat and orderly fashion. In-one-ear-and-out-the-other cinema; easily digestible narrative rhythms and beats can only make us feel so much after so many go-arounds. Or, to be more specific, they don’t affect our hearts or our minds because their primary interests aren’t located in areas that necessitate the medium of cinema itself. Instead, they focus on presenting something close to what one could call an indexical, almost flat view of reality and jury-rigging a narrative around it; again, it all goes back to that word “relatable,” the place that all of this simplicity stems from.
Keeping all of that in mind, Piaffe — the feature-length debut of Berlin-based conceptual artist Ann Oren — is a profoundly relatable film, albeit on a kinesthetic level, and not in any of the aforementioned ways that are traditionally associated with the medium. But it is, first and foremost, a filmic work above anything else (calling it an “aesthetic object” would be a tad too precious), where its most alluring cursory charms are produced by strictly cinematic means. Shot on 16mm — aside from a few rather plastic-y looking digital images that announce themselves on sight — and displaying a keen formal rigor right from the jump, the film moves from scene to scene based less on narrative momentum and more on an intuitive — and, at times, almost gestural — logic that borders on instinctual, where whatever happens next doesn’t necessarily need to happen, but does and generally makes enough sense in the given moment to never derail the film’s dynamic sense of spontaneity.
As a result of our central protagonist’s profession — Eva (Simone Bucio, who delivers the rare type of intense physical performance that feels natural) is a foley artist, one who’s currently working on a commercial that features the titular trotting horse — we get all manner of audio-visual syncretisms throughout that slowly destabilize the viewer’s sense of space, time, and overall perception. We see Eva embodying the horse by producing a “galloping” noise through the sand, with the silent steed’s image being looped over and over again until they begin to match; soon after, Eva’s footsteps outside begin to conspicuously sound like clopping hooves, with subtle yet discernible changes in the overall audio mix becoming more frequent. After a while, Eva begins to act like the world around her is slowly coming apart at the seams; we aren’t explicitly told this, but through image and sound alone, we too begin to disassociate along with her.
Yet, describing the film according to these superficial terms doesn’t even begin to do justice to the actual content of the film itself, or even its wildly fluctuating tone and adventurous sense of playfulness. Truth be told, I don’t even want to tell you about most of what happens here as if it’s a simple plot description; it’s a film that truly needs to be experienced with as little context as possible going in, to bear witness to how each scene is rendered and actualized in the present. Like any great piece of art, simply stating what’s happening does the piece little-to-no favors; but I’ll try my best. After a few go-arounds with an uptight director who demands a more “natural” horse sound for the ad, the meek Eva eventually sprouts a mane and tail — both of which turn into fetish objects for the young artisan — and discards any remaining signs of homogeneity in the process. She also visits a few German nightclubs, engages in rough foreplay a few times with a stranger-turned-lover, and frequently visits her mentally unstable sibling, all before Eva finishes the commercial and finally shaves the hair clean off her newly sprouted tailbone. Thankfully, at least for viewers, there’s little easy psychology offered up in order to explain things away by the time any of this happens; Oren has wisely focused her efforts on making audience members question their own state of mind before asking them to interpret Eva’s.
Of course, despite the many impressive and memorable elements of this boldly original, ferociously sensual, and even outright dangerous little feature, one should still make no mistake: Piaffe is an equally bizarre and baffling spectacle, one that will be off-putting or else seem uninviting to some, as it requires you to vibe out on a very idiosyncratic wavelength in order to truly get anything out of it. But while the film’s character certainly can spill over into the realm of abrasiveness or serious quirk, it’s all so earnestly balanced that it becomes less about any intent toward “weirdness” and more about its unpredictability. It’s a film that, if anything, proves you can relate to others on a broad humanist level while still being exciting and novel on a moment-by-moment basis. So while Piaffe may not click in exactly the right way for all viewers, it’s still a thrillingly indefinable achievement that demands your attention and, at the bare minimum, your respect. This is about as radical and forward-thinking as contemporary cinema gets.
Writer: Paul Attard
The latest film from veteran Malaysian director Woo Ming Jin (Monday Morning Glory, The Tiger Factory) is an interesting cinematic specimen. A filmmaker with sensibilities that run to both Asian art film and outré horror, Woo strives to achieve a kind of hybrid object with Stone Turtle, and the results are suitably mixed. The film offers a bit of a parallel to the “elevated horror” wave that has been dominating Western fests and arthouses for the past few years, suggesting that in the age of streaming content, a filmmaker with aesthetic ambitions may feel required to dress them in the sheep’s clothing of genre.
To its credit, Stone Turtle is a continually shifting film. From its opening moments, which depict an act of shocking brutality, through its various narrative bobs and weaves, Woo’s film only makes its project absolutely clear in the final half hour, and even then certain fragments are difficult to square with the film’s apparent reality. Set on an isolated Malaysian island, said to be populated only by “savages,” Stone Turtle is fundamentally about kinship, with blood ties frequently filtered through myth and folklore. As such, Woo is able to continually revise his diegetic world, with implications of supernatural occurrences, fractured memories, and traumatized subjectivity.
Zahara (Asmara Abigail) is a young woman who is raising her dead sister’s child, Nika (Samara Kenzo). As we eventually learn, they left the mainland for a desolate life on the island, largely to protect Nika from the sorts of dangers that befell the girl’s late mother. Alas, civilization finds the pair, as Samad (Bront Palarae) suddenly appears on the shore one day. He claims to be a turtle researcher from the national science academy, but Zahara suspects right away that he is not quite what he seems. The two begin a tenuous struggle of wills, as Nika’s safety hangs in the balance.
Without giving too much away, it can be said that Woo employs a form of looped cinematic time. Even though Stone Turtle’s visual language implies an uninflected realism, events begin to repeat themselves, and Zahara becomes increasingly uncertain of her position relative to Samad, Nika, and others hovering on the periphery of her life. This includes her repeated attempts to register Nika in school, which are complicated by Zahara’s non-citizen status. She is an ethnic Acehnese, and this could mean that the home she originally fled was in Indonesia, or that she and her family were undocumented immigrants in Malaysia from the start.
As you may gather, Stone Turtle is an ambitious film. Woo strives to enfold such complex issues as statelessness, fundamentalism, femicide, and environmentalism, as well as the slippery fabric of reality itself. In truth, Stone Turtle grazes all of these concerns without delving into any of them in a fully satisfying way. It’s a bit of a battle between violence and revenge, on the one hand, and the traumas of colonialism on the other. It’s a seductive battle, even if the incommensurate elements ultimately come to a draw.
Writer: Michael Sicinski
Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s A Woman (Une femme de notre temps) could be taken for a statement film: Juliane (Sophie Marceau) is a Parisian chief of police; her contemporary surroundings foreground the visual signposts and audio reports of a mounting Covid-wave; and the score is ostentatiously selected from the work of modernist Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. These signposts are unusual for Civeyrac, though the film is not devoid of his touches: Juliane, we learn, is a novelist, and her life, dissociated and regimented, is built around the choices she has found it easy to avoid making. In Civeyrac’s best works, this characterization, moving toward tragic isolation, is the gravitational center around which the world (of families, circumstances, and mystical, fated romances) whirls.
But Civeyrac’s direction drifts between incompatible modes. Being this close to the policier (and the milieu of Marceau’s early defining role in Pialat’s Police) reveals how limited Civeyrac is when playing with popular conventions: is Juliane’s department corrupt (and her with it)? Is her husband cheating on her? And will writing about her sister, five years since her passing, transform her troubled fixation on this period of her life? It is this last narrative thread that would seem to engage Civeyrac’s strongest tendencies, as in the multi-layered narration of My Friend Victoria (2014) or Le doux amour des hommes (2002). Juliane, the novelist, imagines herself a heroine, cleanly recusing herself from a potentially violent interrogation, and masochistically enduring her husband’s boring affair. She is distanced from her experience, and Pierre-Hubert Martin’s cinematography plainly outlines this arrangement.
Even when operating at a high level, Civeyrac has never rediscovered the visual invention that Céline Bozon’s photography bestowed on his early-aughts work. Here, the overcast realism maintains the tone set by Marceau’s spartan performance. One never believes that a Civeyrac film is about to become a comedy, but here he matches Juliane’s behavioral avoidance with a narrative of avoidance: A Woman turns away from romance (even when Juliane wields her crossbow with fiendish authority, the realistic mode limits any potential mythic identification), from the invention of literature, and even from the immersive generic interest of an investigation in which Juliane is, at least officially, a participant.
Ten years after their New York introduction, the cinéastes associated with the journal Lettre du cinéma have made little headway, at least in terms of wider visibility: Serge Bozon can play Cannes, but out of competition, Axelle Ropert may win the Prix Jean Vigo, but her latest film will not receive distribution, and Jean-Charles Fitoussi is likely even less well-known than he was a decade ago. Civeyrac’s new film, which feels pared down and isolated in an unproductive way, will not change this. But its unsuccessful approach may still have its roots in the group’s ethos, which prizes the complementary forces of creation and criticism.
Civeyrac was never the foremost critic of the writers for Lettre, but given the circle’s animus toward the films of Arnaud Desplechin, one possible way of seeing A Woman is as a response to Desplechin’s Roubaix, une lumière (2019). Where in that film Roschdy Zem’s police chief is methodical and superior, wholly integrating his pursuits of leisure and narrated philosophy, and Desplechin’s staging of transcripted interrogations theatrically emotive, the plans and fantasies of Marceau’s chief are considered with distant irony. Civeyrac’s conception of the world rarely offers any of his characters relief, but here Juliane’s attempts at moral action are immediately refuted and twisted. Civerac’s instincts as an artist do not lend themselves to outright satire, and one longs for the concentrated mixture of moods in Civeyrac’s best films, rather than this impulsive sketch. But perhaps, despite the star billing, this isn’t an attempt at prestige, but a negative argument, to be delivered and, in contrast to the weighty novel that Juliane never finishes, be done with.
Writer: Michael Scoular
Since the advent of an autonomous African cinema in the 1960s, Western audiences have grown accustomed to a realist, declarative style that served to describe histories that had been obscured by the legacy of colonialism. But this was as much a tendency on the part of Western tastemakers as it was the films themselves, and recent years have seen the rediscovery of major figures such as Sarah Maldoror and Med Hondo, whose work often operated in a more modernist, even fantastical vein. Angolan director Carlos Conceição is one of a number of young filmmakers who are embracing that more elliptical approach.
Such a counter-realist style befits a film like Tommy Guns, a horror-fantasia examining the final days of the Angolan war of independence against Portugal. The facts of colonial violence are now well documented, but what remains is a less factual, more psychological interrogation of the colonial legacy. Conceição seems less concerned with informing the viewer than in submerging them within an ever-shifting dreamscape, one that may correspond to the collective trauma of the colonial era itself.
The film beings with an extended prologue, in which we watch an Angolan soldier die, and the Portuguese nun who tries to save him (legendary actress Leonor Silveira) hunted down by angry militants. Conceição’s attention begins to light on a young girl, Tchissola (Ule Balde), who lived near the convent. As she flees the violence, she encounters a young Portuguese soldier (Silvio Vieira). Their interactions are tentative at first, and eventually they express a silent, physical tenderness for one another. But this apparent post-colonial rapprochement, the liberal fantasy of forgiveness and romantic triumph, is a red herring, to say the least.
This shattered promise might best be understood as Tommy Guns’s statement of purpose. The film is a changeling, constantly revising and reversing its apparent intentions. Although it bears many of the hallmarks of a war film, it also depicts the military mentality as a form of group pathology, and eventually a Kafkaesque double-bind. Conceição’s primary focus is on a wayward platoon of Portuguese soldiers, whose spiritual leader is Zé (João Arrais), a contemplative young man who intuits that something is wrong with their mission, although he cannot say exactly what. Despite this interest in the minds of the colonizers, Tommy Guns operates squarely from the Angolan perspective, going so far as to stage the achievement of independence as a return of the repressed, the revenge of actual zombies.
Much like another Locarno competition title, Woo Ming Jin’s Stone Turtle, Tommy Guns is a film of great ambition, but it does not completely succeed at bringing its various ideas satisfyingly together. Even as a film about being lost in the fog of war, it frequently loses the plot, as if Conceição were making it all up as he went along. Nevertheless, Tommy Guns demonstrates that Conceição is a bold new voice in Portuguese as well as Angolan cinema.
Writer: Michael Sicinski