TIFF 2014. Correspondences #3

The third entry in this year's TIFF correspondence tackles films by Jessica Hausner, Johnnie To, and Abel Ferrara.
Fernando F. Croce

Dear Danny,

I also rode the Tokyo Tribe rollercoaster, and my head hasn’t stopped spinning yet. Slamming together the most rabid excesses of the worlds of manga comics and hip-hop music, it’s a continuous blitzkrieg: Sono’s ne plus ultra of sheer brio, and, along with Godard’s Adieu au language, the festival’s most assaultive sensory experience so far. Its pinwheel neon hues, inflamed camera movements and acrobatic gangland mugging are straight-up dilations of Seijun Suzuki’s vintage gonzo pulp—indeed, the first time I ever heard Japanese rapping on screen was during a brief interlude in Suzuki’s mock-opera Princess Raccoon. I doubt even that veteran iconoclast, however, could have dreamed up the bit in Tokyo Tribe when the vile underworld kingpin (Riki Takeuchi), swollen like an obscene parade float, pulverizes a field of warring gangs with a Gatling gun held, of course, crotch-level. Such moments of absolute glee abound, though I agree with you that, at nearly two hours, Sono’s nonstop cacophony—and, worse, its unwaveringly pummeling tone—inescapably slides from giddy to wearisome. After a while, it just feels like the film is falling on you over and over.

With my ears still ringing, I went to Amour Fou, which confirms Jessica Hausner as a peculiar suspense specialist. In her previous Lourdes, the question was the verity of a miracle; here, it’s the outcome of a death pact in which the two participants are, humorously, never on the same wavelength of passion at the same time. The setting is Berlin in the early 1800s, and the morbid romantics are soul-sick poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel) and married young aristocrat Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnoeink). “Ill with weariness and solitude,” he calmly asks her to join him in the ultimate fatalist gesture, a double suicide. Later facing a terminal if questionable medical diagnosis, she begins to reconsider the author’s offer: “Amazing how suddenly everything can change.” The clarity of Hausner’s framing captivates, with characters pinned to ornately patterned wallpaper, scandalous “French ideas” discussed against Germanic compositions, the sound of canine paws scuttling across parlor marble floors. Yet the mixture of death and romance announced by the title (and so beloved by the early surrealists) is served deliberately chilled, the feelings unmistakably thumping yet kept at a distance by a starched deadpan. Despite Hausner’s distinctive, delicately tragicomic touch, the film’s droll formalism comes too often at the expense of an emotional pulse.

Just the other night, Danny, we were talking about how some genres are favored over others in auteurist criticism, about the way romantic comedies are often treated with disdain by writers who painstakingly dissect muscular action for hints of directorial personality. I liked how in his article on Romancing in Thin Air, Adam Cook compared Johnnie To to Howard Hawks in his ability to hang on to and expand his complex visual style while hopping between thrillers and romcoms. So his latest, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, plays like Man’s Favorite Sport? to the Bringing Up Baby of To’s 2011 original, initially disappointing yet fascinatingly riddled with the filmmaker’s concerns, less sequel or remake than perhaps self-re-examination. Gao Yuanyuan and Louis Koo return as two sides in the odd romantic configuration (overlapping triangles? jagged parallelogram?), nested in separate towers but forever gazing at each other through purposefully cramped window/screen frames. Farcical misunderstandings, fantasy selves, love messages written on corporate glass. Also: cleavage-triggered nosebleeds, a leading man constantly referred to as “the asshole,” spit-takes, slushy ballads, electrocutions, pastry-throwing, and, why the hell not, a clairvoyant octopus. It’s reliably strange, and a bit stolid. To doesn’t warp the glossy surface the way Koreyoshi Kurahara did in I Hate But Love, though he builds to a vertiginous finale that showcases his balance of near-classical elegance and outlandishness.

No need to dig too deep to find the auteur in Pasolini, and not just the late, eponymous Italian maverick that’s the subject of this oddball biopic but the filmmaker behind the camera, Abel Ferrara. The connection between them is obvious: scummy poets both, Pasolini and Ferrara are equally obsessed with utter darkness and rough ecstasy, with cinema that’s at once profoundly physical and ineffably smoke-like. Introduced in tight close-up, a pair of dark shades practically nailed to his skinny, leathery visage, Willem Dafoe’s Pier Paolo has a death-scented dapperness. It’s his final day on earth, and the camera ponders his mundane interactions (sitting by the typewriter, reading the newspaper, hanging with family and friends and street hustlers) with… serenity? I have always been fascinated by the way Pasolini followed the earthy hope of Trilogy of Life with the bottomless horror of Salò, and Ferrara’s portrait understands how thin a line divides rapture and despair. “Let me frank: I’ve been to Hell,” the auteur at one point declares to an interviewer, and there’s not a trace of braggadocio in the statement. Yet there’s no more vivid evidence of his love of life than his hunger for faces, ideas, sensations, and challenges.

I know we both have been eagerly waiting for this one, Danny, and I was for the most part enthralled. Is this Ferrara’s most restrained work? How tender this harshest of directors turns when paying his respects to a kindred troublemaker, how tangibly warm his panning shots and slow dissolves feel. And there’s something very touching about his use of Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli, whose mop of curly hair has by now turned white in a way that alternately suggests his legendary co-star Totò, Harpo Marx, and Ferrara himself. (When Davoli looks up at an affectingly chintzy special-effect of a shooting star and his face breaks into the blissful-idiot grin familiar from his ‘60s appearances, it feels like Ferrara’s loving invocation of a long-dead art.) Unshakable violence awaits protagonist and audience at the climax, yet it’s the film’s instances of dark-toned humanity, dolorous and robust, that linger in my mind.

Over to you.


Don't miss our latest features and interviews.


TIFFTIFF 2014CorrespondencesSion SonoJessica HausnerJohnnie ToAbel FerraraspotlightFestival Coverage
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.