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Cannes Correspondences #11: Vulgar Confessions

From Cannes: Albert Serra’s provocative film of sexual dilettantes, “Liberté,” and the autobiographically-inspired “Tommaso,” Abel Ferrara.
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.Liberte
Liberté
Dear Leo,
The festival may almost be over, but that doesn’t mean the chance for controversy is gone. Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film, Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo, premiered at the end of Cannes because it literally was finished this very month, but one might also suppose the festival preferred this presentation, enlivening the rapidly depopulating Croisette with scandal. I haven’t seen it yet, and in fact only caught up with the first Mektoub (subtitled Canto Uno) two weeks ago. Despite its 2017 premiere in competition at the Venice, it was never shown in North American film festivals and still has not been distributed. There is good reason for this shunning, even though the first film is Kechiche’s follow-up to the Palme d’Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color: it was brazenly and unredeemably misogynistic, leering at every possible moment at the bodies of its actresses for its over-three-hour runtime, and giving these women almost no agency in its story. (I also found it interminably monotonous and boring, but that isn’t in the same category as moral judgment.) That there is another three-plus-hour sequel to this piece of garbage isn’t surprising, since it is formed out of footage shot during the original production (and there is presumably a third film to come); that it has been programmed in competition in Cannes at all, and especially at this moment of heightened political sensitivity in the culture, seems either purely tasteless or intentional trolling.
But as I said, I haven’t seen it—perhaps you can tell me more tomorrow. What I have seen was what many thought the most controversial film at Cannes this year up until the Mektoub premiere: Liberté. Its vulgarity carries the smack of calculated transgression because it is directed by Albert Serra, whose bold emphasis on stripping down his famous subjects—Quixote, the Magi, Casanova, Louis XIV— to exhibitionist essentials of the all-too-human body, unexpected proclamations and utterances, and opulent yet spartan period trappings, all caught in the stultifying, anti-glamorous passing of time, has allowed the Catalan provocateur to move with ease between the film and art worlds. This new feature emerges out of both a two-screen installation as well as a play staged at the Volksbühne Berlin. Its affinity for all these media is immediately clear: taking place on the cusp of the French Revolution in an isolated European forest upon which night rapidly falls, we watch various tableaux of aristocrats and their servants effectively cruising for sexual stimulation or voyeurism in a languorous, story-free procession of isolated actions inside sedan chairs and out in nature. The context for this is set up in a long monologue relating the slow dismemberment of man who tried to assassinate Louis XVI and the pleasure of the crowd in watching him be so grotesquely killed. The entourage of libertines we will watch fiddle with and gawp at each other over the next two hours or so have escaped the disapproving atmosphere of the court and the times. While almost all other subsequent dialog is about erotic fantasies or demands for more whipping or other sexual acts, this opening vitally places what follows in a world politically and socially turning upside down, emphasizes the decadence that absorbs the elite of the era, extends that decadence to suggest the possibility of a libertine social utopia, and intertwines the desire for sex with the desire for death. It also ultimately shows that the rich are just like everyone else, bodies partially (sometimes mostly) defined by sexual needs.
While the premise of the film is theoretical and abstract, what follows throughout this chilled out viewing experience is very simple: immersing us in indolent atmosphere of fetid sexuality, evoked through Serra’s typically beautiful and unique quality of digital photography, here mottled in dark shadows and the knubbily textures of foliage and 18th century embroidery. Mostly men (mostly elderly, mostly ugly) touch themselves over their clothing or watching others do it, and some women (all young and beautiful, as well as more exposed) are fondled, licked, and whipped in a slow escalation to more extreme acts that makes up the film’s only sense of narrative movement or time passing. For the first half of the film you might be surprised by Serra’s discretion, considering that these “poisonous woods,” as one aristocrat calls them, are rife with pent-up sexual needs. But fulfillment doesn’t come quickly: no intercourse nor any nudity occurs for a surprising amount of time, just the repetition of idle stimulation and the movement from watching (or performing) one action to another. But eventually we see more, much more: a graphic rimming, emphasis on the damaged face and body of a physically disfigured man, what looks like a real whipping of a woman’s naked bottom, people urinating on one another. By this time the film’s desolate and self-involved sex practice is clearly evoking Pasolini’s Salò, yet it still skirts greater explicitness. As strange as it is to say, there is something bizarrely demure about the film’s lack of on-screen penetration. Most penises seen are in fact limp, and gradually it becomes clear that Liberté isn’t aiming for a staging the world’s most drawn-out orgy in the woods, but rather an experience much more tentative and perhaps even impotent.
At a certain point, all this languor and the constant repetition of similar actions and similar gazes stopped giving me new things to see or think about, and for a while I was entranced in a vaguely hypnotic way by the oneiric and timeless atmosphere, the nocturnal soundscape, the odd, almost pathetic lack of energy in these sexual dilettantes. But this too wore itself out, and the film starts to grow increasingly exasperating and tedious. The post-1990s trends of extreme minimalism in art-cinema often has a problem of distinguishing the difference between a subject and form slender enough for a short film and one robust enough for a feature film, and this is a problem that besets Liberté. Despite its vulgarity, the film never feels as audacious or daring as I sense Serra thinks it is, but the festival context alters this impression quite a bit. In both style and content, Liberté’s tableaux vivant is almost certainly the most avant-garde film to be shown in the Un Certain Regard section, if not the Cannes Film Festival as a whole, and it is admirable indeed that the they would program such an flagrantly challenging and narrativeless picture for such a crowd. But then again, let’s be honest: this is Cannes during the film festival—probably some members of the crowd were planning on leaving the premiere for a night of similar bacchanalia in their hotels, villas, and yachts. Maybe what we were really looking at was not a poisoned forest but rather a poisoned mirror.
A mirror is also one way of thinking about the movie Tommaso, in that it is a work of unusually personal autoficition by its director, Abel Ferrara. Shooting in his own flat in Rome, to which the great but underfunded New York director decamped many years ago, casting his wife and their young daughter to play themselves, and having Willem Dafoe act as his stand-in sharing personal details—including being a recovering addict and working on the long-gestating film project Siberia—the film finds the universal in the confessional. Shot guerrilla-style with the most minimal budget possible—Werner Herzog’s cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, ensures a raw and immediate look—the film offers vivid flashes of the energetic but conflicted life of the titular director as he swings from joy with his four-year-old daughter to flashes of anger over his young wife’s self-sufficiency, the strength granted by confessions at AA meetings to constant erotic dreams of other women.
Like Ferrara’s wonderful biopic Pasolini—only recently released in the States after its premiere five years ago—which also stars Dafoe as a director, the film shows a life that struggles to balance the fantastic possibilities of filmmaking with the day-to-day mania involved in living a fulfilled family and creative life. We see storyboards of Siberia as a well as imagined scenes that could be for another desired film project, adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which Tommaso projects himself into as a man suffering a Christ-like passion. He also unreasonably suffers in his fresh marriage, and several of the arguments the husband picks with his wife are very parochial indeed, but this only serves as a more self-lacerating portrait—and after all, Ferrara has always embraced the vivacity of pulp and exaggeration. Throughout, Dafoe gives it his all in a movie that revolves the world around this ultimately very average man. With its extreme modesty of scale, intimate subject matter, and emphasis on poetics over storytelling, Tommaso is in keeping not so much with American cinema as it is in old-guard European auteur cinema in which visionaries have been reduced in funding to making bedroom productions, like the last two films by Jean-Claude Brisseau and Jean-Luc Godard. It might be a sketch of a film in between larger paintings, but there is always something more revealing and for that reason more expressive about an artist’s smaller, looser work. It is remarkable and not a little touching that Ferrara so wishes to share the torments and pleasures of his daily life he has found while striving to create greater things.
Warmly,
Danny

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