Credit: Epicmedia/Sine Olivia Pilipinas/Films Boutique/Rosa Filmes/Tier Pictures/ARTE France Cinéma
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Locarno Film Festival 2023 — Dispatch 2: Essential Truths of the Lake, The Old Oak, Lousy Carter

August 16, 2023

Essential Truths of the Lake

As yet another Hong Sang-soo project makes the rounds, surely to be followed in four to six months by another, even newer film, it’s worth reflecting on just how prolific Lav Diaz is, too. While Hong has turned out 17 movies in the last decade, Diaz has managed 14. The most obvious difference, of course, is that one Diaz film tends to be anywhere from three to five times longer than the average Hong. The Filipino director’s latest effort, Essential Truths of the Lake, runs 210 minutes, making it only slightly shorter than the runtimes of Hong’s last three films combined. The ludicrously prolific nature of these two artists throws the laborious mechanics of the average Hollywood narrative feature into sharp relief; Hong and Diaz’s working methods reflect not only their own unique sensibilities, but also a repudiation of how “normal” films are made. Small crews, a stable of recurring collaborators, relatively simple digital cinematography, and proudly regional locations (with a few notable exceptions for each) allow both directors to work quickly and keep their budgets low.

Indeed, within these parameters, they are allowed to make virtually anything they want, following any tangent or idiosyncrasy they please: Hong’s In Water is purposefully filmed out of focus; Diaz’s Season of the Devil is a musical and History of Ha features a ventriloquist dummy as one of its main characters. Still, one shouldn’t push a comparison between the two men too far; their formal and philosophical differences surely outweigh their similarities. But both offer a different way of approaching narrative film, typically an expensive, industrial art form that in their hands becomes personal, diaristic, sketched out, and always unfinished — ideas are fluid, continued on from one film to the next, like a run-on sentence. This process — rendering the “epic” on the smallest possible scale — is essential to Diaz’s process, and the foundation of his political action.

Diaz’s 2022 film When the Waves Are Gone was a crime yarn loosely inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo. Lt. Hermés Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz), a disgraced police investigator cast out of society for beating his wife and assaulting a colleague, finds himself on a collision course with a recently released criminal who he had sent to prison years earlier. Essential Truths of the Lake, then, is a prequel to Waves, introducing us to Hermés several years before the events of that film, when he is still (seemingly) happily married and has not yet descended into the depths of violent despair we know his future holds. Here, he is obsessed with discovering the whereabouts of Esmeralda Stuart, known as the “Philippine Eagle,” and who has been missing, and presumed dead, since 2005. As is typical for this period of Diaz’s career, he is also concerned with the drug policies and extra-judicial killings facilitated by the Duterte regime. Stuart’s activism is shown via flashback to include performances dressed in elaborate costume and working with domestic abuse survivors to raise awareness about intimate partners violence, and her disappearance becomes a metaphor of sorts for the ongoing collapse of Filipino society; a loss of innocence, perhaps, or an awareness that state-sponsored violence corrupts everything it touches.

The symbolism would be obvious and heavy-handed without Diaz’s steadfast commitment to duration, forcing audiences to fully experience the heaviness of all this grief. The director’s films are always accumulating — plot, characters, dialogue, all piling up over the course of his distended runtimes; shots are often quite long, lasting several minutes, but also simplistic in their construction. There are no snaking steadicam takes, no elaborate trickery. If figures are speaking to each other, Diaz simply sets the camera down and lets the conversation play out. There’s no traditional continuity editing here, no shot-counter-shot or inserts to closeups, no bouncing back and forth from closeups to medium, head-and-shoulder shots; for example, when Hermés interviews one of Esmeralda’s ex-boyfriends, a man gradually revealed over the course of a long conversation to be drug dealer, the camera simply observes the two men at a table. Essential Truths of the Lake, like all of Diaz’s films, approaches the avant-garde simply by eliminating the extraneous — no establishing shots as people go from place to place (a penchant he shares with Rivette), nor any real delineation between dream sequences and reality, or flashbacks within the narrative proper. It all flows together, a slipstream of shared experiences.

As always, reality intervenes into Diaz’s fiction, here represented by the 2000 Taal volcano eruption in Batangas; in the aftermath, Hermés shifts his desperate investigation to the ash-strewn lands surrounding the volcano, layers of soot further burying any vestige of hope of finding evidence. And earlier in the film, Hermés interviews a documentary filmmaker who had worked with Esmeralda, the woman’s film (made up for this narrative) sharing space with Bergman’s Persona and Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal, both very real movies. Predictably, there’s a lot more incident in Essential Truths than any brief synopsis can describe; Hermés’ travels find him meeting all manner of people, his investigation slowly transforming from something concrete and practical to something altogether more oblique. As he begins to slowly deteriorate under the psychic pressure of his existential malaise, we see the beginnings of the skin condition that will continue to plague him in Waves, while frequent phone calls to his off-screen family suggest that his prolonged absence is what will eventually lead to his wife’s infidelity in the later film. It’s in this negotiation between Diaz’s most recent two works, and their joint reflection of our present, that we are able to locate what’s perhaps the best compliment one can offer: that the combined powers of Waves and Essential Truths suggest Diaz is likely the only filmmaker capable of adapting Roberto Bolaño’s mighty 2666, arguably the essential document of a modern world driven to the point of madness by the fallout of the 20th century. It’s a bleak worldview, to be sure, but one that we must all navigate. Continuing to make art is sometimes the best we can hope to do. DANIEL GORMAN

Credit: Sixteen Oak Limited/Why Not Productions

The Old Oak

Prior to the premiere of The Old Oak at Cannes back in May, Ken Loach indicated that this would be his last feature film. Granted, Loach has made that claim before, and he nevertheless feels compelled to keep working. But there would be something rather fitting, if unfortunate, if Loach called it a day following The Old Oak. A once-defiant filmmaker steeped in the British Socialist traditions of William Morris, Raymond Williams, Tony Benn, and Dennis Skinner, Loach now feels largely defeated by a country — and a global system — that has become far worse than anything he might’ve imagined. As cruel and deleterious as Thatcherism has been for the U.K. and the Commonwealth at large, it looks nearly benign compared with the rise of outright fascism. That, of course, has a long British tradition too, and in recent years the British commentariat has been reviving the ghosts of paleo-racists like Oswald Moseley and Enoch Powell, suggesting that maybe these hatemongers have a point.

Set in the economically depressed county of Durham, The Old Oak centers on T.J. (Dave Turner), the middle-aged owner of the titular pub. A once thriving community hub, The Old Oak is now a broken-down dive barely kept afloat by a small collection of old-timers. The pub’s back room, unusable and fallen into disrepair, is hung with photographs documenting the union activism of decades past, the pride of locally-based organized labor that was destroyed by Thatcher’s notoriously ruthless response to the mid-80s miners’ strike. T.J. has affection for his mates, but he is clearly exhausted, and we learn that only two years ago he attempted suicide.

But T.J.’s community spirit is revived by the arrival of Syrian refugees who, over the protests of a host of angry poor white people, are being housed in the neighborhood. After a young thug attacks a young woman named Yara (Ebla Mari), destroying her camera, T.J. befriends her, and in meeting her family, his most humanistic tendencies are confirmed. They are kind, industrious, but wholly ordinary people responding to an oppressive regime, and they want to become part of the larger community.

As is often the case with Loach’s collaborations with screenwriter Paul Laverty, The Old Oak simplifies matters in the name of educational agit-prop. The regulars at the pub resent the presence of the Syrians, reflexively blaming immigrants for their own sad plight. Thatcherism decimated this place, but it is much easier to fixate on the strangers right in front of you. Chatter in the pub about “giving them a chance” vs. “sending them back where they came from” are rote and predictable, and while one could certainly make the argument that racism itself is also rote and predictable, there’s no denying that The Old Oak is direct to the point of being formulaic. From the opening scene, with T.J. trying and failing to fix the Old Oak’s outdoor sign, to the fate of his little dog Marra, Loach’s film offers few surprises.

However, what The Old Oak does offer is a clear-eyed look at disillusionment. T.J. is an old working-class leftist, with collectivist values instilled in him by his coal miner father. But when he and Yara work to improve the sorry state of their village, they are met with ignorance and active sabotage. Near the end of the film, T.J. breaks down in tears, leaving a meeting of organizers by announcing, “I’m done.” Loach and Laverty provide a somewhat positive conclusion, in which the locals accept the Syrians following the death of a family member. Class solidarity is abstract, it seems, but mourning the dead is a palpably universal experience. But in T.J.’s struggle to combat the hatred he sees welling up in his peers, it’s difficult not to see Loach engaging in a rare instance of self-portraiture. He may eventually pull a Samuel Beckett — “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” — but it would be hard to blame the 87-year-old stalwart if he were ready to call it a day. The Old Oak suggests that, far from damaging the British nation, the new immigrant communities offer new blood for the struggle. This, and this alone, seems to give Loach a modicum of hope. MICHAEL SICINSKI

Lousy Carter

“You are a baby man.” Less an insult than an observation, these words spoken to Lousy Carter (David Krumholtz) by his ex Candela (Olivia Thirlby) roughly function as both synopsis and thesis for Bob Byington’s latest feature. In fact, they’re fairly reflective of the director’s project writ large, with most of his mumblecore-adjacent films comprising a post-Confederacy of Dunces survey of bumbling but literate men firmly in an arrested development of some sort. This time around, Byington makes a study of Lousy, a tenured professor who was hired a decade ago on the strength of an animated short film but who now teaches a single graduate-level course on The Great Gatsby. The joke of building an academic career around such a mainstream work isn’t commented on, but the brevity of the text is — Kaminsky (Martin Starr), Lousy’s best friend and a professor of Russian literature, asks why he doesn’t simply teach an STD pamphlet instead. Byington takes this familiar setup of the bungling, selfish doofus a step further by having Lousy immediately find out that he has only six months to live, and the remainder of the film observes the fallout — or lack thereof — that the specter of death has on this doomed man.

The answer, executed in deadpan fashion, is not much. Which is for the best, as it’s far more enjoyable to pay witness to the dry absurdity of Lousy Carter’s writing than it would have been to follow any edifying course for Lousy; in fact, this confrontation with his own impermanence doesn’t seem to have much of an effect at all. That doesn’t mean Byington doesn’t have anything up his sleeve, as he ultimately offers a wry subversion of how such narratives typically resolve, but that too is executed with a hilarious shrug. The director is given a massive assist in all this courtesy of Krumholtz, whose lovable schlub schtick proves the necessary balance for a character this self-absorbed; and given the character’s particular texture and arc, it’s easy to imagine someone like Jason Schwartzman (previous Byington collaborator) in the role. Indeed, the film does feel like a less acidic riff on something like Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, but Krumholtz grounds the entire project by keeping his dickhead an entirely affable presence. Unlike Schwartzman’s Philip in the latter film, Lousy takes a similar view of himself as those around him — he’s driven less by narcissism than a slothful regard for the notion of self-improvement.

This is all reflective of a particular filmic personality found in Lousy Carter, one that is consistent across the board and aided by its supporting cast. Starr, executing his usual mode of monotone condescension, is an excellent screen partner for Krumholtz — in no way a criticism; there’s always been a thread of sitcom running through Byington’s films, and the pairing of Lousy and Kaminsky is among the best in this regard — while Luxy Banner outright steals the show as Gail, an acerbic grad student Lousy ropes in to help with his latest short film (an adaptation of a minor Nabokov work). Her bafflement at nearly every interaction with Lousy offers a fantastic social mirror for the unsettled professor to engage with, and much of the film’s low-key humor is mined from his tottering while under her sardonic gaze.

Byington’s aforementioned subversion of template arrives in the film’s final few minutes, and while it goes a long way to wrap things up with an appropriate wink, it doesn’t entirely undo the sense that we’ve seen this film before, and plenty. But overfamiliarity notwithstanding, Byington makes the right decisions at nearly every juncture, the writing and performers dialed into the same cockeyed frequency, whether we’re talking illicit affairs, intentions of murder, embittered eulogies, or merely the fittingly lazy antagonism the prickly professor injects into nearly every interaction. There are more things in this world than The Great Gatsby, and there are more man-babies than Ignatius J. Reilly. Sometimes being Lousy is enough. LUKE GORHAM

Credit: Matteo Vieille

The Beautiful Summer

There must be some sort of an unwritten connection between the warmth of summer and the heat of one’s newfound emotions, the ripeness in the air and the maturation of sensations. It’s a special seasonal shift, especially for the youth who so often realize their sensual and corporeal impulses during this period of time, amid the passionate sun-drenched climate casually filled with careless ease and soothing breeze in a way they’ve never experienced before. Despite being set in 1938 Turin against the backdrop of Mussolini’s Fascist-era Italy which subsequently led the country into WWII, Laura Luchetti’s The Beautiful Summer works, just as its title vividly suggests, primarily on a contrast: the beauty, innocence, and relief of a transient time before the years of war, misfortune, and darkness. Adapted from Cesare Pavese’s 1949 same-name novel, the film follows its young protagonist Ginia (Yile Vianello), whose quotidian life initially appears to not consist of much more than her daytime job as a dressmaker in a downtown fashion atelier and her role as caring sister to her young and talented (but quite uninspired) brother, Severino (Nicolas Maupas); everything seems to have its inviolable order. Luchetti delicately captures Ginia’s figure in certain architectural and compositional spaces in order to punctuate her existential condition: the claustrophobia emphasized by narrow corridors, walls, windows, and balcony bars complements her movements — usually in either vertical posture, ascending and descending the stairs, or horizontal fashion, going back and forth via the city’s tram or strolling the streets — and culminates in a precise choreography which exemplifies both her daily Sisyphean struggles and her ceaseless desire to make something more of her life.

But among all these visual motifs, what stands out right away is the constant usage of mirrors and window panes that project Ginia’s reflection and construct a clear duality. It’s no surprise that the reserved, hardworking, and affectionate woman soon meets Amelia (portrayed by Deva Cassel, Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel’s daughter, in her debut role), a free-spirited and sociable modern girl who poses nude as a painter’s model. As sudden and unexpected as their encounter is, one might easily imagine how Amelia’s abrupt presence in Ginia’s prosaic life engenders a certain celestial and dreamy quality. Could she be a muse for her? Possibly. But again, the duality we’ve found in Ginia’s divided reflections now makes even greater sense: she soon follows Amelia into artistic and intellectual communities, distancing herself from her previous routines; she even alters her style by wearing a trendy hat, and under Amelia’s influence, decides to try modeling, even embarking on a fling with Guido (Alessandro Piavani), an independent young painter. The Beautiful Summer tells a story where two women mirror each other and wherein the constant acts of dressmaking (covering) and nude modeling (uncovering) present overt metaphors for their recovering and discovering themselves.

Indeed, Luchetti’s concise and perhaps unassuming aesthetic style (in collaboration with her DP Diego Romero Suárez-Llanos) has a keen observational tendency toward the juvenility of bodies and freshness of their characters’ emotions. Through her unique female gaze and artistic sensitivities, she captures an omnipresent beauty and breeziness — whether in natural landscapes and the city’s architectures, or through the representational process of painting — as well as an Epicurean philosophy (listening to and dancing to music, smoking, making love, or creating art), jointly functioning as political antithesis to the patriarchal fascism otherwise emblematic of the era. It’s the same stance that allows the viewers to discern a collision between the old and the new throughout The Beautiful Summer, whether in its more classical static shots or via its occasionally spontaneous handheld camerawork, or even as we see its characters, their movements in and out of the archaic cityscape of Turin. Luchetti’s atmospheric and haptic direction — the way she frequently singles out a body, especially the hands, is remarkable — offers somewhat of a contemporary fusion of Nina Companeez and Alberto Lattuada’s romantic eroticism, deliberately eschewing the greater spectacular and historical aspects of conventional set piece work or the heightened emotionalism regularly found in international Netflix productions for the fluid and compelling chemistry between Vianello and Cassel. This chemistry delineates a tender yet piquant portrait of youth and freedom, especially its rites of passage, inevitably and bittersweetly moving from the promises of summer to the heartbreaks of fall to the melancholy of winter, and — hopefully — to a blooming spring again. AYEEN FOROOTAN

Dreaming & Dying

Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s lo-fi, low-key films seem to be increasing in ubiquity as reference points for young filmmakers. Nelson Yeo’s Dreaming & Dying initially appears to have a particularly strong affinity with the former; his sparse premise — a reunion of three friends who were involved in a love triangle as youths, two of whom are now married — gives way to an even sparser narrative as the three actors playing those characters are the only ones who appear in the film. If that doesn’t recall Hong, Yeo’s elaborate zooms will. What most distinguishes Dreaming & Dying in the early going is the texture of the image, far gauzier than Hong’s (until recently) sharp compositions. Fissions in reality are another consistent Hongian feature, but they are generally academically conceptual, whereas when Yeo’s film digresses, it’s into explicit fantasy.

Fantasy can be synonymous with dream, but though perhaps the title would suggest that’s the case here, Dreaming & Dying is most successful when it is fantastical strictly in the sense of genre. Hong’s multiple realities are fascinating because they have no hierarchy; they inform one another in their conceptions, equally contributing to our impressions of the films even when they don’t equal each other in runtime, rather than functioning as a series of alternate realities illuminating one “real” narrative. This is tougher to accomplish here, when a mermaid is introduced in order to explore the dormant leg of an erstwhile love triangle, though as the film goes on, its fantastical elements are more elegantly integrated, allowing their narrative content to coexist with the initially presented storyline rather than intrude as a counterfactual. Most impressively, the last few scenes follow from each other largely outside narrative incident and yet still result in a sense of closure.

The rest of Yeo’s filmmaking comes across much like his approach to narrative — never really deficient, but maximally effective only intermittently. Some enticingly juvenile banter or a late burst of piscine violence may spark interest, but in general the premise is both too clichéd and too thin to sustain that interest. It’s a bit curious that a first feature would be so rooted in middle age, and (though after identifying a cliché it would be awfully rich to demand a writer “write what they know”) despite a set of affable performances, the film’s three characters rarely feel like more than sketches. Sometimes sketches can be enough to inhabit a narrative experiment, but when the dialogue also strays from realism, including a particular sequence strikingly repeated thrice, it’s easy for investment to wane. That’s not to say Dreaming & Dying isn’t a compelling debut, or a compelling film in and of itself, but it’s one in which a few of the seams are a bit awkwardly sewn, threatening to come apart.  JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER