January 3, 2012

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Since I’m not stinking rich just yet, my plan to go on a heavily medicated tour of international film festivals has been put on indefinite hold. Luckily, the Museum of the Moving Image has purloined 13 new features from all over the world, most without U.S. distribution, for their inaugural “First Look” series (Jan. 6-15), bringing the best of the fests to NYC. Since distributors continue to lose money on any film not in English (or, occasionally, French), it’s something of a miracle that any foreign titles reach our shores at all. This leaves a huge glut of films without any stateside release, left as rumors of masterpieces in the words of the few industrious critics and curators able to send word back to us in the sticks. “First Look” was programmed by some of these proud few: Dennis Lim, the editor of Moving Image Source, Assistant Curator of film Rachael Rakes and Chief Curator David Schwartz. It’s a small but impactful series, with invigorating entries from old masters like Chantal Akerman and enchanting young voices like Gonçalo Tocha.

The opening night slot is given to Akerman, who will be in person to present Almayer’s Folly (2011), her impressionistic rendering of Joseph Conrad’s first novel. As with her adaptation of Proust’s The Captive (2000), Akerman eschews textual faithfulness in order to establish a specific atmosphere. In The Captive it is of airless enclosures, as Simon (Stanislas Merhar) creeps at the edge of the frame, seeking to imprison Ariane (Sylvie Testud) within his own paranoia, subtly shifting the narrative center of Proust’s story over to the woman. It owes as much to Vertigo as Proust, and Almayer’s Folly is  equal parts Tabu and Conrad, using the story as a loose outline to contain images of luxurious colonial decay. It is filled with shallow-focus tracks through greenery and static shots of Almayer’s arthritic stumbling around his crumbling kingdom. Almayer (again Stanislas Merhar, equally opaque and vainly controlling as his Simon) is a Dutch trader who seeks his fortune in Malaysia (the film was shot in Cambodia). He marries a local, Zahira (Sakhna Om) because his mentor, Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé), believes the woman’s family owns land on top of a gold mine. The plan fails, and Almayer is marooned in a combative marriage on a dilapidated farm, his only respite his daughter Nina (Aurora Marion), whom Lingard enrolls in a strict French boarding school. As Almayer and Zahira slowly decompose into their surroundings, nurturing mutual resentments and growing manias, Nina increasingly occupies the center of the frame and the narrative, Akerman’s camera fixated on her placid, inquisitive face. This shift is signaled in the opening scene, in which an adult Nina is a backup dancer to her sometime lover Dain, as he lip-synchs to Dean Martin’s “Sway”. After an unknown attacker carries Dain off, Nina is left alone on stage, still dancing, seemingly oblivious to the world around her. Then, she takes the center in a close-up, and sings a gorgeously melancholic version of “Ave Verum Corpus”. A Eucharistic hymn to the redemptive power of Jesus’ suffering, it turns Nina into a martyr before the narrative proper begins, a grievous angel who pays for the sins of her father.

The protagonists of Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below (2010) live in a world without God and sin, but plenty of greed, as they sleepwalk their way through the global financial crisis. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, but was never released in the U.S.. A co-editor of the German film magazine Revolver, and associated with the loose cadre of “Berlin School” filmmakers, Hochhäusler is a precise technician, as his follow-up, One Minute of Darkness (2011, part of the Dreileben trilogy) shows. The City Below follows two empty suits: bank president Roland Cordes (Robert Hunger-Buhler) and Svenja (Nicolette Krebitz), the bored wife of one of his employees. Svenja is exhausted from constant re-location (from Hamburg to Houston to Frankfurt) and desperate for a way out of her modern glass-walled life, which Hochhäusler frames with geometrically precise right angles. His tracking shots use frequent jump cuts, however, irruptions in style that neatly echo the characters’ fissuring psyches. In the first shot, Svenja sees a woman wearing the same blouse as her, so she follows her steps, even ordering the same Danish (and spitting it out), desperately trying out a new life.  Cordes is equally eager for escape, fiercely identifying with (and gaining voyeuristic pleasure from) heroin addicts, as well as an employee in Indonesia who was kidnapped and killed. Cordes pretends that the victim’s childhood was his own – a lie he acts out for Svenja during their mutual seduction. It is a union of split, hollow personalities, who continually break-up and reunite in increasingly violent fashion, as if they were a rapidly multiplying microbe, set to take over and infect the world.

Phillipe Garrel’s mindset is still set squarely in the ‘60s, no matter what year his films are set in. His newest work is That Summer (2011) an earnestly affecting relationship drama in which its characters discuss revolution as if the May ’68 riots where happening right outside their doors. But no, it is set in the present day, and Phillippe’s son Louis plays Frederic, a mercurial, adulterous painter still passionately in love with his movie star wife, Angele (Monica Bellucci). When he invites his friend Paul (Jerome Robart) and girlfriend Elisabeth (Celine Sallete) to stay in their Paris apartment, they are there to witness the spectacular flameout of Frederic and Angele’s love. Garrel lovingly cultivates the star personas of Bellucci and and his son – Louis is insanely sensitive and brooding, Belluci imperiously cold and beautiful, more mythic archetypes than human beings. Frederic is all Dionysus with no Apollo, an artistic, atavistic soul not fit for the world, and so he departs it. Bellucci, who has never stood out to me in a film before, is wonderful as the herder of Frederic’s untrammeled emotions – and when her Olympian reserve cracks, it does so spectacularly in an uninhibited dance with a stranger, which Garrel shoots in a generously long take.

The standout title in the First Take series, though, is Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth, Not the Moon (2011), an absorbingly inventive three-hour documentary about the smallest island in the Azores archipelago, Corvo, population 440. Tocha spent parts of two years on the island, and attempted to film everything he could: knitting, cheese curdling, lock-making, accordion-playing, sitting, standing and dancing. Tocha is a restless social historian, trying to capture every tradition and personality on the island before they disappear – lending the film its joyous and elegiac qualities. He gets Ines Ines (a name she married into) to knit him an old-style beret, the retired cheese maker to make him some wheels of cheddar (“you have to take care of them just like babies”), and the 94 year old Uncle Pedro to play his accordion that he hadn’t brought out for ages. Tocha explores not just the people, but the volcanic landscape which produces the almost unearthly neon greens of the caldera vegetation, and the rocky shores that are nightly attacked by rising waters. The locals track these waters like sacred texts, producing a photo book of the highest wave crests. A former whaling port, the population has the ocean in their blood, even if it no longer provides a living. One of the former lookouts says of the whales, “I still dream with them”, before backtracking (“You want more lies?”). Tocha’s Corvo is not simply a necropolis sliding into the ocean, though, but a town, like any other, struggling to adapt to brutal new economic realities.

First Look is an essential new series, bringing together a cross-section of styles and approaches impossible to see in your neighborhood arthouse. And I haven’t even mentioned (or seen) the other entries in the program, including Johnnie To’s financial crisis drama Life Without Principle and Raya Martin’s Super-8 road trip freakout, Buenos Noches, Espana. With the number of films exploding and distribution channels shrinking, I hope this First Look is one of many to come.