Credit: FIDMarseille
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

FIDMarseille 2024 — Dispatch 3: Lazaro at Night, The Flame of a Candle, 7 Walks with Mark Brown

July 10, 2024

Lazaro at Night

Medium-length features; a small but consistent troupe of actors in every picture; every scene just another conversation; little-to-no camera movement; and beguiling, inventive narrative structures that make otherwise simple movies anything but — these are the artistic hallmarks that have granted director Hong Sang-soo a well-deserved cult following. But all of those characteristics also describe the oeuvre of lesser-known Nicolás Pereda, who, if it can be believed, makes even quieter, slower works than Hong. The comparisons stop there; Pereda doesn’t swap out Hong’s soju for Mexican cervezas or anything else that would lead one to imagine Pereda fully lifting or even making reference to Hong’s style. The pleasures of a Pereda film are distinct, and his latest film is the furthest he’s explored his own style.

Lazaro at Night is, at first, about a small community of artists in Mexico City navigating the jealousies and tensions that always come with an insular scene. Like previous Pereda films, the characters here play versions of themselves using their own names — even Lázaro, whom Pereda-heads would recognize as Gabino Rodriguez, emphasizes that he’s changed his name, and, sure enough, the actor is credited as “Lázaro G. Rodriguez” — to emphasize naturalistic, perhaps autobiographical, acting. Here, they play three artists who know each other from a writing workshop long ago; Lázaro and Francisco (Francisco Barreiro) compete for Luisa’s (Luisa Pardo) romantic attention while all three simultaneously audition for a role in a small movie. Lest that sound dramatic, all three are unfazed by their romantic trysts, and the auditions are simply pleasant conversations while the director “observes them” for the part — likely Pereda poking fun at himself. Then, the Peredian shift arrives when the trio begins to reminisce about their workshop teacher, and the film jumps into an extended montage sequence of the more boring parts of their lives in an apartment building. Then, an even more radical shift happens, as the movie becomes an adaptation of the story Luisa wrote in the workshop. We never do find out if they get their parts.

There’s a subtle humor at work — more Martín Rejtman than Roy Andersson — that elevates the material above the legions of minimalist dramas that plague film festivals every year. Pereda immediately paints Lázaro as an asshole, but an absurdist asshole, one who confidently tells that director that he should be paying actors to audition and demands to pay for coffee with one of his poems. To be an asshole in a normal way, such as yelling at Luisa for sleeping with Francisco, simply would never occur to him. Meanwhile, Lázaro’s mother chides all three of them despite their efforts to be polite at dinner, and the director’s relaxed audition “method” leads to the most tense scene in the film. Through these burlesques, Pereda teases the sort of arts communities that take their insular problems so seriously.

Even the final section of the film, Luisa’s retelling of the story of Aladdin, acts as a long joke: instead of wishing for anything extravagant or otherworldly, Aladdin simply wishes for food every time. Pereda admits that this sequence was inspired by César Aira’s lecture about the tension inherent in magical realism; that something so sacred could be used for such utilitarian ends feels sacrilegious, even among the most secular readers. Lazaro at Night, which follows Pereda’s other works that highlight the empyrean within the everyday, doesn’t act confined within the tradition of magical realism, but uses it to tell a story even better: a cosmic joke. ZACH LEWIS


Credit: ©Panama Film/FIDMarseille

bluish

The depictions of early adulthood in cinema have, until recently, been characterized by an odd, dizzying sensation: portraying it as a period where one’s life has never been, and would never again be, so far from being a perfectly orchestrated and coherent course of growth — a sensation similar to those moments in cartoons when a character sprints off in haste, losing themselves in the momentum of exhilaration and freedom, only to realize mid-air that they’re off the cliff and about to be devoured by the void. The manic and messy adventures of 20-somethings from the aughts and early 2010s, mostly championed by American indies and with GIFs that decorated Tumblr and Pinterest feeds, are now being turned into running gags on TikTok to satisfy the ever-growing nostalgia of millennials. While it is indeed difficult and perhaps irrelevant to make generalizations about the globalized, tentacular film industry, where any argument can easily be invalidated by numerous counter-examples, an interesting trend of ‘introvertism” regarding the portrayals of young people can still be observed within the relatively loose frame of arthouse cinema. Primarily influenced by the long-term social and existential effects of COVID-19 on young people living in big cities who still struggle to reengage in their old habits of “being in the world,” a number of films and filmmakers explore how these individuals search for self-expression within the confines of domestic space and come with alternative ways of intimacy and connection, albeit clumsy and awkward in their interactions and sometimes becoming easily and suddenly unavailable for communication.

With their films Beatrix (2021) and bluish (2024), which recently won the Grand Prix in the international competition at FIDMarseille, Austrian filmmaker duo Lilith Kraxner and Milena Czernovsky provide vivid, empathetic glimpses of a different, relatively solitary young adulthood through their female protagonists. Beatrix had already demonstrated the directors’ fascination with the sentiment of chaos and rebellion expressed through small, mundane gestures, bringing together the sun-drenched ennui and idleness à la Rohmer and the domestic performativity of Akerman. Through its elusive titular character, who was spending her summer in the countryside, that film offered a fragmentary portrayal of a self-contained woman indulging in boredom and loneliness, all the while being resistant to forging human connections.

Working once again on 16mm, Kraxner and Czernovsky adopt a similar formal approach in bluish as they did with their first feature — characterized by static, austere shots and a keen focus on visual economy. Beatrix, bathed in warm lights and bright colors, epitomizes the quintessential summer film. In contrast, bluish, equally luminous yet distinctly different, could be described as a winter film, resonating with the cold, pale ambiances of short days and long nights. While Beatrix features a titular character who furtively tries to sabotage others’ attempts to approach her, the protagonists of bluish, Errol (Leonie Bramberger) and Sasha (Natasha Goncharova), seek connections in their own way, whether through a small touch, a game of eye-blinking, or a furtive smile. bluish is shot in Vienna, but like the characters’ names, it is never overtly addressed, conferring on the film a vague but familiar atmosphere that is easy to relate, where similar situations could happen to any young woman in any given European city. 

We follow Errol and Sasha as they go on with their daily lives, in an anti-climactic narrative built on vignettes in which every “event” is given equal attention and importance — an aspect that echoes, to a great extent, Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Audrey Benac films, with which bluish bears formal and aesthetic similarities. Errol, who can be described as the timid one of the two, has a more self-conscious and observant demeanor that the film captures in various instances of social interaction — the blinking game she plays with a kid before her doctor appointment, the constant glances she gives while changing in the local swimming pool’s locker room, the dissociative face she inadvertently makes while a friend tries to teach her a card game, and many more. Whereas Sasha, who seems to have recently moved to the city and doesn’t speak German, displays a more extroverted nonchalance and a physical expressivity. She goes to art galleries, performances, parties; even when unable to speak the language, she looks for other ways to connect and interact with people.

Kraxner and Czernovsky accommodate these varying sensitivities by resorting to different artistic forms and formats — performance, dance, VR film, songs, and even Google Earth imagery — that channel a wide range of sensory, social, and psychological experiences. While every frame and segment of the film feels meticulously structured and organized, one cannot fail to notice the inherent naturalistic aspect in them, expressed through a certain fascination of the camera with mundane, random things and events unfolding. In a similar fashion, both Errol and Sasha, though different in temperament, seem to constantly oscillate between the state of letting oneself go and feeling extremely aware of one’s presence among others. Living the moment and observing oneself live the moment: performing the self appears to be the ultimate existential dilemma of our times. 

In bluish, the blurring lines between reality and performance transcend the story and are explored on a conceptual level as well. In one particular scene, Errol helps an artist with the preparations for her art show, which Sasha is later seen attending. The artist asks her to put adhesive tape on the wall in a perfect rectangular form to see if the wall can be used for a projection. The result is a meditative, nearly mesmerizing scene that draws the viewer’s full attention to the wall itself, which mirrors the diegetic frame that the filmmakers chose to separate from the pre-filmic reality. Errol’s adhesive tape thus functions as a self-reflexive device that draws parallels between the cinematic framing process and our perception of it, raising several questions. For us, the audience, at what point does a wall stop being a simple, ordinary wall and become part of an artistic construction? Or, more broadly, when and how does a chunk of reality start acquiring new meanings beyond what it was intended to have — or have these meanings always been latent and indistinguishable? 

An inverse rendering of the same tension occurs near the end of the film when Sasha comes home after the party. Before going to sleep, she puts on an audio recording for meditation that helps the listener become aware of different parts of their body and environment. With the lights turned off, Sasha listens to it — but she is not the only audience of the recording. The soothing instructions pierce through the narrative and speak to our own physical bodies as we see and hear the film, offering a similar experience to Lois Patiño’s Samsara and its interactive segment illuminated with colorful lights. Here, though, after all those hues and tones of blue that populate the film, we find ourselves in pitch black, without knowing when exactly the darkness of Sasha’s bedroom fully transforms into a depthless void, into blankness — or whether we still remain within the limits of the physical world. Maybe it’s both and never fully any of them. Maybe, like the film itself that exists in this in-betweenness, what we call self, too, is a mere approximation. By way of an answer to the song we hear in the opening which asks, “Are you normal? Are you good? Are you fast?” one would indeed “come up short anyway” at being oneself, only capable of showing a tinge of it. ÖYKÜ SOFUOĞLU


7 Walks with Mark Brown

Pierre Creton and Vincent Barré have amassed a remarkable body of work, and “body” is certainly an apt descriptor. Their intimate and playful films are concerned with social interactions and the world surrounding them; last year in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, Creton premiered Un Prince, which seemed like a summation of all these ideas: a years-long portrait of a young botanist, his romantic bonds, and his artistic blossoming. This year, at FIDMarseille, Creton and his long-time creative partner, Barré, are back with a new film, 7 Walks With Mark Brown.

7 Walks could be glibly described as the ultimate incarnation of the “the setup/the shot” format popularized on TikTok, a potentially blunt descriptor, but the strategy employed here is considered and delicate. The first part of the film, called “The Shooting,” documents seven excursions through the Pays-des-Caux under the guidance of Mark Brown, a paleobotanist in search of the coastal region’s endemic plants. In seven short segments, shot digitally with a familiar, documentary-like visual language, we see Brown in his element, identifying plant after plant, describing their etymology, the soil qualities best suited for growth, their history in the region, and detailed descriptions of their pollination strategies. He talks about far too many things to keep track of, but the joy of the film can be derived from his repetition, or perhaps, more generously phrased, found in his process: of seeing, identifying, explicating, connecting, and feeling. Creton accomplished a similar feat in Un Prince, where time in the presence of a young man learning his craft and finding his passion, no matter how mannered the images or the dialogue, elicited an almost rapturous attention from the viewer. Brown even moves himself to tears on occasion, either because a certain plant has special qualities he likes, has endured some kind of trauma, or has simply persevered for hundreds of millions of years. It doesn’t take much to spark Brown’s enthusiasm, or for us to realize we’re in the midst of a man’s life’s work, the reflection of his deepest passions. Getting caught up in Brown’s love of plants is one of 7 Walks’ great pleasures, and a key to its success.

In “The Shooting,” Creton and Barre are as careful in depicting the filming of Brown’s walks as they are with filming Brown’s walk. Throughout, we see Creton and Barre’s team of filmmakers at work. As the sound recordist, note-takers, assistants, 16mm camera operator (who some viewers may recognize as the lead character, Pierre-Joseph, in Un Prince), and Barre himself weave in and out of frame, always in conversation with Brown, we bear witness to simultaneous processes. Around the film’s halfway point, the camera operator sets up the final shot. Until this point, we’ve had a pretty good idea of what Brown has been showing the crew, despite never really seeing direct images of the plants. They’ve always been half-shots, mediated in some way by distance, angle, or shadow, supplemented, mostly, by Brown’s own words. The final shot, however, is deliberately hidden from our view. Brown, Barre, and the rest of the crew all look down at the ground as Brown describes the plant, but we never see it. The film flutters through the camera until it runs out, an internal clock that no one else sees stops itself; the end is a surprise, yet somehow unceremonious. No one shouts, “Cut!” That end, the hard stop, signals the end of the Brown’s walk in nature, and the end of the shoot. And just as wrapping a film is emotional for the filmmakers, so too is the end of a walk for Brown. Tears and embraces commemorate two jobs well done.

Depending on how you feel, there’s a Hitchcockian or Lubitschian tension to the final setup, priming us for a payoff in the second half, called “The Herbarium.” It’s essentially the finished product of the documented seven walks, a series of plant-based tableau; only the gentle breeze disrupts, or enhances, the tranquility of the lush 16mm imagery. The transformation in image quality is shocking, and renders each plant under an almost alien glow. Given the stage on their own, these instances of flora are stoic figures, posing as if they were models for a magazine cover.

Brown’s voice appears again, studio-bound, quiet and intimate, remarking on the images through an improvised commentary that wavers somewhere between science and poetry. There isn’t the same emotional fluctuation we saw in “The Shooting,” but there is, nevertheless, a poignant, reflective quality in his voice. The sequence of images is in line with the sequence of the seven walks, and each plant is a revelation. All leading up to the final plant, its presence, so far, made all the more tantalizing through its absence. Brown’s commentary brushes up against an impatient desire to see the great final plant, the one that was filmed with so much care and anticipation. The payoff isn’t grand or shocking. It isn’t even all that impressive. It’s a lovely plant with long, dark green leaves and small, yellowish, budding flowers. The sun casts the central stalks in a pleasing glow, and the wind rocks them gently. In the interest of staying on theme, the emotional release is more Lubitschian than Hitchockian. It’s romantic, subtle, almost cheekily shy. Think of Tony meeting Mrs. Barker after he discovers she’s Angel in Angel, not the belt mix-up in The Merry Widow. The reveal has happened, you’re happy to have seen it. But maybe you haven’t let all the air out of your lungs.  CHRIS CASSINGHAM


Credit: FIDMarseille

The Flame of a Candle

The Flame of a Candle presents the account of three characters: Alzira (Eva Ras), her maid Beatriz (Márcia Breia), and their home. Director André Gil Mata speaks of the film as a biographical account of his grandmother and the tucked-away house where he spent his childhood with her and various other relatives, including his grandmother’s maid, whom he saw as a maternal figure. The film spans decades, weaving portraits of a family through generations, the camera never leaving their house or garden. The film introduces Alzira and Beatriz in old age, going about daily routines slowly as the camera watches patiently, as if biding time. Over the course of the two-hour film, a few events play out across an intimate history — a proposal, illness, and gatherings of children mark some of the film’s only speaking sections — the audience sees as Alzira comes of age and quietly seems to wither away as a prisoner of the home. At the same time, Beatriz, confined to her duties, suffers a double fate as both a woman of the household and a domestic servant.

Time plays out as fluidly as Mata’s camera movements, helped along by veteran Akerman editor Claire Atherton, whose sense for duration allows the film to build up an incredible moving current alongside its ambiguous narrative runs. As the film goes on, repetition becomes a key theme — the same chores performed over and over, the same hallways and rooms occupied by the same bodies. Most striking of these occurrences is a long-take in the garden that Mata returns to four times throughout the film. A distant church is framed by the stone walls and cherry blossoms that hide the garden from the outside world, and the camera slowly pans along the branches of the tree to the ground, taking note of a multitude of flowers along its way. The camera traces and swivels around a moss-covered log, following a path of ferns past a sleeping dog to its final position watching over a door that nobody enters. Some change occurs in the garden’s setting with the seasons’ change, but the movement is choreographed similarly each time. Cherry blossoms fade and branches grow bare. At times, the church seems busy from a distance, and at others eerily quiet. The dog appears perpetually chained to its house, and every porch-sighting thereafter brings a new visitor or finally signals a departure.

Though the film extrapolates on Mata’s view of devotion to the home life as cyclical, the garden reinforces that though time passes, little changes for the house, whose own memories seem to dictate the film more than any individual characters’. In a final sequence, when Alzira goes to sleep and the camera floats through the darkened halls like a ghost, the audience is privy to reunions of faces long lost to time. Phantoms from the past act as statues, modeling the behaviors of their lives: reading the newspaper, performing chores, sitting down for a meal. Even in their passing, they remain stuck in their rituals, with Alzira left to remember their domesticity. JOSHUA PEINADO


It Is at This Point That the Need to Write History Arises

Metafiction as a reclamation of the historical and a confrontation of the contemporary malaise, built up across international political discourses of pervading neoconservatism, urgently addressing the matter of aesthetics in this, the cultural miasma of globalized imperial rot retreating back to its nest. Metafiction as a stride into the knots of ideological preoccupations across borders, genders, cultures, and histories. Constanze Ruhm’s It is at this point that the need to write history arises turbulently seeks to capture this momentum, diving into the archive with the intent to wrest from it a contemplative resuscitation of proto-feminist figures and their lineage. Specifically, it surveys 17th-century women in their counter-hegemonic drive and wedges into this political crisis an ontological expansion to articulate from a single, static point in history the reimagining of waves as they ebb and flow. In many ways, Ruhm utilizes the linguistic interests of Paul Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography, a difficult and strained portrait of identity, and in similar fashion to that film, where postmodern sensibilities pluck against the limitations of a transparent and reflexive faux-performativity. The faculties of material violence which are taken up and reckoned with here, discerned under the structural oppressions that span a troubled record, often encroach on — if not succumb to — a neoliberalized identity politic, while the film’s theoretical scaffolding generally fails to add to well-established critique.

Ruhm’s fictions exist within a continuum of extrapolations, crystallizing through a heterogeneous formalism whose imagination feels unfortunately quite stuck in a pastiche of experimental image-making. From its use of mirrors as a motif to direct address via its troupe of actors, the project persistently reads as spiritually contained, its dialectical analysis often at odds with the organized symbology the film reimplements again and again across a limited runtime. The essay that these many thoughts and recollections culminates in is one that’s whole feels just out of reach, the ghosts this project brings into dialogue frequently overwhelming the centrifugal voice — that push toward an unknown in need of awakening — stumbling against an invisible barrier the film can’t quite circumvent. Peter Watkins’ influence bleeds through the reflexive epidermis, and with just how bogged down it all gets in discursive yet derivative aesthetic sensibilities, what is excitedly represented quickly stalls into mundanity. Ruhm’s narration reaffirms intentions again and again, but the dissonance between desire and its results becomes a subject that dwarfs the principal feminist orientation, transforming the piece into a rhetorical gambit, an idea of furcated hypotheses that the filmmaker chases and often loses grasp of. It’s easy to glean from this project a simplistic conference with an archive desperate for new life, but its machinations of fiction under the guise of postmodern aestheticism reveals the film to be defined by a more prickly and evasive amorphousness, one caught in its own cogs, grinding itself up, reforming again and again. But perhaps that’s the ingenuity here, perhaps that cannibalism is a force our queer-future steps into as the shadow of fascism rears its head back around. And in that there is much to consider and to struggle with.   ZACHARY GOLDKIND


Credit: FIDMarseille

Leisure, Utopic

Beatrice Gibson’s short film Leisure, Utopic is the first in a series of “loose adaptations” of Bernadette Mayer’s book-length poem, Utopia. The film features the reading of a heavily edited version of the fourth chapter of Mayer’s book, “The Arrangement: of Houses & Buildings, Birth, Death, Money, Schools, Dentists, Birth Control, Work, Air, Remedies, and so on…” with alterations ranging from references to social media substantially postdating Mayer’s 1984 book to minor differences in phrasing. This form of adaptation is entirely in keeping with Mayer’s copyright, which states that “[all] rights remain unreserved and free including the right of reproduction in whole or part or in any form or way that seems pleasing or useful to you.” Mayer herself borrows liberally; the chapter’s footnotes contain work attributed to Anne Waldman, Joe Brainard, and Ann Rower, though none are adapted by Gibson. A profession of “looseness” thus oxymoronically tightens the relationship between Gibson’s film and Mayer’s book.

Though the film’s audio and image are never in sync, in its first half they do seem to depict the same profilmic event. Gibson guides a child, uncredited (as is Gibson’s performance), in a reading of some version of Mayer’s text, emphasizing the elementary process of reading and further mediating the text. Then, for just a moment, the image literally portrays the poem, as the line “there is enough food” coincides with the clearing of plentiful dishes from a picnic table. The reading of the poem continues, and the performers on screen are still a woman and a child, but now neither’s face appears, the woman’s out of frame and the child’s beneath a large mask. The image again diverges from the sound/text as the film’s closing shots take the mask as its central subject, shadows obscuring the face presumably behind its eyeholes. The penultimate line of both Mayer’s chapter and the film’s edited text is the same — “there are the histories of all the individuals in the world” — but Mayer’s conclusion, “everyone contributes to this part of the [book,]” gives way to “even me.” Whether this inserted first person is taken to be its literal narrator or Gibson herself, “even me” seems more relevant to the line it replaces than the one it follows.

In Utopia, this chapter follows an account of Grace Murphy, to whom the book is dedicated, having arrived at Mayer’s apartment from the future, Mayer eventually exclaiming “[what] did you find out!” This description’s solutions to the problems raised by healthcare, the carceral system, and capitalism are self-consciously haphazard, “[a] rapid shot at all of this, inviting the readers’ elaborations.” Gibson’s adaptation functions then as a response to the invitation of her source material, Mayer’s artistic generosity allowing her a posthumous role proximate to collaboration. JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER