Sunday, November 13, 2011

BIFF Reviews: The Running Away Edition

Good Bye: People often say they’d pay to watch their favourite comedians read the phonebook. Well it turns out that I’ll gladly pay one of my favourite auteurs to make a political thriller comprised largely of people sitting around in waiting rooms. I had been afraid that, without an Iron Island or the White Meadows to lean on, Rasolouf might struggle to create the breathtaking and pointed pictorial beauty of his earlier films. This is not at all the case, in fact in he has, without changing his master shot style at all, made the most powerful images of his career.*

The nature of power within the Iranian state is once again at the centre of this film and the constant images of inaccessible male authority hidden behind doors and screens serves as an effective visual schema to get this across. Furthermore he is constantly emphasising the alienation that his protagonist, Noora, feels within her own country: Nearly everything in the film fits in within its drab blue-grey colour scheme and there is a breathtaking use of a mirror which makes a character Noora is talking to feel a million miles away.

As is the case with Kore-eda and I Wish, Rasolouf is once again working with now familiar storytelling tools. While the total, world encompassing allegory is absent he hasn’t given up on symbolism as a mode of expression. Similarly the narrative once again progresses through the slow accretion of detail which creates a picture of the system his character is trapped within and culminates in a logical yet shattering conclusion. If anything is different here it’s that the moment when all the pieces fall into place comes at the midpoint of this film before it continues to a heartbreaking but, given the filmmaker and his context, inevitable conclusion.

PS: I couldn’t wedge in an appreciation of the most unsettling scene in the film. Suffice to say that Rasolouf proves, once again, that elevators are the scariest things in the world and that he has some of the best mise-en-scene** chops around. 
*With the possible exception of his first film The Twilight which I have not seen.
** I was going to go the entire festival without using this word but pretension will rear its ugly head.

Another Earth: Warning: I do not reveal the ending but you will probably be able to infer it from what I’ve written. I’d argue that you shouldn’t worry, seeing as the ending means precisely nothing anyway, but if you haven’t seen it it’s probably best to be on the safe side.

There’s a degree of discomfort in watching a melodrama that thinks it’s a drama – a film in which the filmmaker is presenting an overheated narrative but doing so with the po-faced conviction that this is actually a serious moving story with big things to say about the human condition. It’s even worse when it’s familiar. Tell me how this story goes, beat for beat: someone does a horrible thing and then becomes involved with the person they did it to, unbeknownst to that person. Did you get it? If so you might be Rhoda Williams, the protagonist of Another Earth. Or you might just have seen a movie before.

This isn’t even a particularly good telling of that story. The dialogue isn’t quite as tin-eared or clichéd as it is in the works of one James Cameron but the big dramatic moments are written in big dramatic ways and when Rhoda comes clean at the climax her confession bears all the hallmarks of all the tear-streaked confessions that have gone before. Mike Cahill’s (director, writer, editor) cinematography doesn’t really help matters either – it’s full of sudden zooms at key moments and it’s clear that once he got into editing suite he never found an important scene that he thought he couldn’t wring more out of by fracturing it into a million little pieces.

Yet despite wringing their scenario dry Cahill, and Brit Marling – who as well as playing the lead co-scripted – aren’t satisfied with all the pathos inherent to it. Instead they also try to wring tears out of the story of an elderly cleaner who has about three minutes of screen time and approximately two lines of dialogue. I wasn’t moved: if you want me to invest in a story you’re going to need to invest in it yourself.

Of course at this point my other self, who split off from my timeline about thirty minutes before I walked into the cinema and decided that  film X playing next door looked cooler after all, might think I’m missing something. What about Earth 2? You know, that strange, startling image of our planet hanging in our planet’s sky? What do they do with that? Surely there’s a measure of novelty in a film which contains two earths?

At first the answer is yes, yes that planet in the sky is an interesting way of making literal the questions we often ask ourselves after screwing up. What if I hadn’t made that decision, what might I be like now? What if I could talk to that other me? It’s quite poignant at first, the idea that our protagonist literally has another version of herself who, just maybe, didn’t screw up in the same way and that that version of herself is within her reach. 

Unfortunately that’s all it does: ask those questions, raise that idea. It has no idea, in its pretty, smeary, digital video head, as to what that actually might entail. It doesn’t have the guts to actually show that uncomfortable conversation between the girl who screwed up and the identical girl who didn’t. It doesn’t have any interest in what might happen between a family man who lost his family and an identical family man who still has his family. It only wants to apply the lightest coating of metaphor to a rather weather-beaten narrative and yet, as the last shot shows, it still wants to, like, totally blow our minds with that coating.

The Kid with a Bike: Okay the Dardenne brothers are kind of awesome, no? I realise this probably isn’t telling anyone anything they’re not already aware of but the acclaimed French masters of cinema verite are one of many heralded filmmakers I hadn’t, and haven’t, got around to yet. On the strength of The Kid with the Bike, widely agreed to be yet another ho-hum masterpiece, I think I’m ready to be a fan for life.

I’ve heard it said that this film is about a boy growing up without a father – and while the film made me uneasy at first; are they really suggesting that a boy needs a man’s authority? I quickly came to the conclusion that it’s actually about a boy without an authority figure he can trust and, ultimately, about the need to learn both to trust others and to take responsibility. To be sure there is a key scene in which his new female protector is unable to physically restrain him but it’s balanced out, whether intentionally or not, by a moment early in the film where the combined strength of two men are quite unable to contain the kid. In any case it’s clear that no amount of physical restraint is sufficient to set this boy on the right path. Ultimately he has to make his own judgements about what it means to “Do the Right Thing”.

This may make it sound like a highly moral film, one about the individual needing to come to an awareness of how to live with and respect others, and that’s definitely a part of what it’s on about. But it also argues for the need for institutions – be they state or familial – to be places within which this can happen. 

If I’ve put anyone off by talking about this film as if it were a didactic think piece rest assured that these messages are conveyed in the most naturalistic fashion imaginable. There are no big speeches, no sudden epiphanies, merely an impeccably and almost invisibly (were it not for the sole music cue) structured film in which the boy slowly but surely grows.

It’s a journey full of quiet cinematic mastery. The Dardennes always have the right shots, whether it be a shot taken from behind someone’s head at the exact moment the kid realises he can’t trust him or a downward angle when the kid is sullen. These are small things, to be sure, but they’re done with precision throughout the film. Perhaps more subtle is the way they pan to follow the kid’s bike when they want to emphasise his  movement and track alongside it when they’re more interested in his state of mind. 

Once again none of this is revolutionary. The Kid with a Bike is unlikely to leave you slack jawed in awe the way an Ingmar Bergman film seems likely to do. It may, however, leave you weeping quietly in your seat and a little wiser about the people around you.

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