By PIERS MARCHANT
It’s been a curious season of festivals — as always, Venice, TIFF, and the NYFF go more or less back-to-back-to-back, making for an almost indecent amount of captivating offerings for all but the most gluttonous of cinephiles — but not without its charms. In this time of massive uncertainty in the industry, amongst film distributors and theaters particularly, it’s deeply reassuring to know the medium is still capable of powerful statements, exquisite imagery, and haunting performances as it ever has.
Mind you, next year at this time, if there’s still no widely available vaccine, there might be a more serious dearth of selections, but for what has been an unsettling and mostly miserable 2020, we can thank the stars that films are often shot a year or more in advance of their release.
This year’s NYFF (still ongoing, as I write this) has provided some glories and some failures, more or less in keeping with the usual standard. Herewith, a quartet of selections, ranging from a resurrected Hungarian triumph, to a modern French non-romance, to the debut of a new and energizing auteur.
Dir. Bela Tarr
Perhaps no setting in cinematic history is more appropriate for shooting in low-contrast black and white than late ‘80s, post-communist Hungary. Bleak, drab, and pelting with rain, the landscape bleeds in shades of grey. Bela Tarr’s 1988 film, a newly restored 4K edition from the Festival’s “Revival” section, begins with a long shot of a ski lift-like apparatus, endlessly transporting buckets of coal to a repository, whose grinding machinery offers a looping hum throughout the film. Much as Tarr’s various musical interludes include similarly cyclical drones of accordion music, are the men and women of this nameless small city seemingly doomed to their various loops of behavior and experience. In Tarr’s Hungary, everyone looks haunted and morose, like a selection of down-on-their-luck rummies in a dive bar at last call. One such bar patron, Karrer (Miklos Szekely B.), is deeply in love with a beautiful, depressed (unnamed) nightclub singer (Vali Kerekes), married to a loutish man, Sebestyén (Gyorgy Cserthalmi), in bad debt to the wrong sorts of people. When Karrer’s friend, bar owner Willarsky (Gyula Pauer), offers him a potentially lucrative gig picking up a mystery package abroad and bringing it back to him, Karrer instead offers it to Sebestyén as a means of getting him out of debt, but more importantly getting him away from his wife, so their affair can continue apace. Tarr’s films move slowly, with long, static shots, or slow-panning camera movement, but within his frame, he packs in detail — from the pellet-like surface of a wall, to the expression of a group of people huddled under a station roof, staring out at the endless rain — and adds in acute sound effects as further punctuation (the sound of a man close shaving over his scruff with a straight-edge, for example, or water dripping from an unseen leak). As with his 1994 opus, Satantango, he includes extended shots of drunken merriment, with people dancing, stumbling, falling over each other, and coming back again, but the effect isn’t exactly heartening. As packs of stray dogs work their way over muddy, mostly deserted fields, and Karrer continues to imbibe the depressed resignation of his life’s trajectory (“the fog settles into your soul,” Willarsky helpfully explains), Tarr’s film, his first collaboration with Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, presents a remarkably tactile vision of life under a blundering political machine, well past the point of repair. With its deep shadows, and obvious femme fatale, you could make the case that the film is a ripened Noir, but one with much of the magistry beaten out of it, tarnished in the mud of the fields. Karrer wears a trenchcoat, alright, but it’s only there to keep out the rain.
Dir. Steve McQueen
Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) didn’t mean to create a community, exactly, when he opened his restaurant in the section of West London that had become home to many immigrants from Trinidad and Jamaica. He just wanted to have a clean business that wouldn’t attract undue police attention, as his former nightclub, Rio, had done. As more and more natives of the Caribbean moved abroad, however, there became a greater need for a place where the community could gather and feel at home. Frank’s place became a local landmark, and Frank himself, a reluctant leader of the growing movement against the continual police harassment many of the residents faced on a daily basis. In this, he wasn’t given much of a choice: Led by a deeply racist police force — more or less personified by writer/director Steve McQueen in the form of the sneering PC Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell) — Frank’s place had been unnecessarily raided nine times in six weeks. So, when approached by local Black activists, including Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright), he agrees to take part in a peaceful protest against the constables. Naturally, the police turn violent, and in the resulting chaos, nine protestors, including Frank, Darcus, and Altheia are arrested. Over time, they are tried, acquitted, and re-tried for even more serious charges. McQueen’s film, another segment from Small Axe, his chronicle of London’s West-Indies neighborhood through the decades,focuses on this specific case, not just because two of the defendants decided to represent themselves (proving to be adept barristers), but because it became a landmark part of the British crusade for civil rights (even though, as the film’s postscript explains, Frank was still routinely harassed by the police for another 18 years after the trial). To capture the sense of the complexity of the community, McQueen employs a David Simon-esque narrative hodge-podge of smaller scenes from different characters’ vantage points and views, allowing us an in-depth sense of the neighborhood and the stakes, while rarely dipping into the more played out elements of the courtroom genre. I would say, in light of the recent racial protests after the Louisville grand jury failed to hold two of the three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor responsible, the film could not be more prescient, but, sadly, this would have also been true just about anytime in the last three decades. As Frank says of the incorrigibly racist leaders and henchpeople continually holding them down, “These people are like vampires, you think you beat them, but they keep coming back again.”
"The Salt of Tears" (2020)
Dir. Philippe Garrel
From the flinch-inducing title (a direct translation from the French), which sounds like a YA novel steeped in melodrama, to the mournful piano soundtrack of the intro, Philippe Garrel’s (very) French counter-romance would seem to indicate a different sort of film than what he’s actually made. It’s a bit of flim-flammery from a celebrated director unafraid to throw his audience for a loop or two (take that title, which proves to be thoroughly ironic until the very last scene). Luc (Logann Antoufermo), a young man from the provinces, has come to Paris to take an entrance exam at an exacting wood-working institute in order to receive a degree in joining, in order to better emulate his woodworking father (Andre Wilms), a kind, elderly man with a “poet’s soul.” In Paris, he happens to meet Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), a sweet young woman falling hard for the handsome Luc, who callously breaks her heart after he returns to his village. Back home, he takes up with Genevieve (Louise Chevillote), an old high-school flame, who also falls deeply for him, getting pregnant in the process, but when he unexpectedly gets accepted to the woodworking school, he dumps her to return to Paris, where — you guessed it! — he meets up with yet another woman, Betsy (Souheila Yacoub), a stunning brunette whom, we are told via our occasional narrator (Jean Chevalier), is finally “his equal.” Or more so, to be precise, as she takes in a second lover (Martin Mesnier) to their apartment, making the unhappy Luc live as a threesome. Garrel’s charting of Luc’s endless relationship explorations themselves gets tiresome, but the director isn’t much interested in his protagonist’s romantic investments, as he is the callousness of Luc, and the young in general — Luc crushes two loving women; then himself gets crushed; while treating his loving father as yet another irritation from time to time — and the manner in which their decision-making has often not matured enough to include the expansiveness of empathy. They know not what they do, until it’s too late.
Dir. Dea Kulumbegashvili
Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut feature, about a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses working as missionaries in a small village outside Tbilisi, and the abuse they endure at the hands of religious extremists, captivates and bewilders in equal measure. The film begins with a long single shot from inside a “prayer house,” as congregants slowly file in and fill the pews, eventually allowing David (Rati Oneli) to begin his sermon concerning the story of Abraham, willing to sacrifice his beloved son in order to appease God. The shot remains static for so long, building its own rhythm, that it becomes that much more shocking when a side door suddenly opens, and an unseen assailant tosses in a fire bomb, lighting the floor and sending everyone into terrified tumult. Kulumbegashvili’s film is filled with similar striking compositions, long single shots with very little camera movement, the edges of the frame gradually generating increasing levels of apprehension, as the action swirls often out of our visual range. She has a way of filming the opposite of what you expect: Several key conversations between pairs of characters are shot with the focus on the reaction rather than the speaker, and vitally significant scenes are crafted with characters’ backs to us, such that we can’t read their expressions or get our normal bearings. It’s a similar conundrum for the missionaries themselves, especially Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), David’s dutiful wife, a former actress, who tries to make the best of their difficult situation, even in the face of such violent opposition to her husband’s proselytizing, a job David, ambitious he is, sees as the key to rising up in the Church’s hierarchy. After their prayer house is burned to the ground, David leaves for a few days to meet with the Elders in order to secure funding for its replacement. Into that void, enter a detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili), who appears one night to “talk” with Yana, but ends up intimidating her into a sort of sexual compromise, an event that leaves her strangely unfazed, even, it might be said, oddly curious. From there, things get both more dire, and more peculiar, with Kulumbegashvili’s implacable camera remaining stoically witness to her characters’ increasingly distressing plight. As curious as it can be tonally, she is so in command of her narrative, the film is never less than compelling, even as tragedy becomes something else entirely. By film’s end, true to David’s earlier sermons, it’s clear that at least his most devoted acolyte has taken in the biblical lessons he proffered, for better or worse.