This year at the Locarno Festival
I am looking for specific images, moments, techniques, qualities or scenes from films across the 70th edition's selection that grabbed me and have lingered past and beyond the next movie seen, whose characters, story and images have already begun to overwrite those that came just before.
The bracing discovery a one-act opera by Arnold Schönberg in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s From Today Until Tomorrow (1996), which is playing in the festival's Pardo d’onore tribute to Straub. Encountering a film by the husband and wife duo of Straub-Huillet is always at double meeting: one, with the perspective of their filmmaking, but also with whatever source material they are transforming into cinema, whether Bach’s music, dialogues by Cesare Pavese, or in this case, a short opera from 1928 by Schönberg. Where most adaptations for the cinema smother their sources to supposedly be more optimized for the seventh art, Straub-Huillet always elevate their material to the concrete yet sensual texture of their films. In a way, they collaborate with other arts and artists, the silver screen a true space of partnership. So to watch From Today Until Tomorrow is to be overwhelmed by Schönberg’s devious and prickly music, Max Blonda’s libretto of marital discord, fantasy, complaint and role-playing, and the filmmakers’ compassionate but withering evaluation of the bourgeois marriage. With such a film, you go into the cinema empty and exit overflowing and activated.
Balancing the serious with the silly in F.J.Ossang’s 9 Doigts (9 Fingers), which is premiering in the international competition. A punk poet and musician, Ossang’s relatively few shorts and features produced since the early 1980s pull vividly from silent cinema, particularly German Expressionism, as well as American noir. His latest begins as a kind of cryptic gangster film—shot in silken black and white 35mm—before the criminals make a break for a cargo ship, plunging the film in the kind of feverish maritime malaise found in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Shadow Line, Georges Franju’s 1973 TV adaptation, and pre-Code tropical hothouses like Safe in Hell (1931). But as beautiful as the setting and photography is—and as delirious as some of the cynical doom-saying of the criminals, each prone to mythopoetic threats and extrapolations—the whole thing is consistently overtly ridiculous. Boys playing dress-up (sunglasses worn inside, at night), a start-stop rhythm thwarting base genre pleasures, and constant anarcho-charlatan pontificating give the voyage a scent of funhouse-fandom charade. Yet wrapped as it is in that oneiric slow pull common to the films of Chilean fabulist Raúl Ruiz and punctuated with a zany, near-crazed freedom that seems truly punk, these dual impulses of sinister gravity and the flippant play somehow magically live one inside the other.
The misaligned love stories of Jacques Tourneur's Great Day in the Morning (1956). An unexpected theme of many of the films in Locarno’s retrospective of this great director from Hollywood’s studio era is an unusual sensitively to serious but problematic relationships between men and women, complicated by the introduction of new characters to a pre-existing world. Case in point is this unusually fully-formed Civil War-era western, where an unpleasant affair between saloon magnate and false U.S. patriot Raymond Burr and his lover and business partner Ruth Roman, and a slow burn courtship between lush good girl Virginia Mayo and Union officer Alex Nicol are all mixed up by the introduction of hero Robert Stack, playing a gunslinging Georgia boy interested only in money, not politics. He falls for Mayo but takes up with Roman, who kicks out Burr and goes gaga for Stack; meanwhile, Mayo can't sort out her feelings—meaning, she wants Stack, but hates to admit it—and the Union officer fatefully nurses a grudge. All of these players—even the cartoonish Burr as the elephant-themed ‘Jumbo’—are given solemn respect and moral nuance by Tourneur, and detailed, fully lived embodiment by the actors. In films like Great Day or even Tourneur’s most famous movie, 1943’s inexhaustible Cat People, this earnest attention to the movements back and forth between couples, the flux of desires when confronted with a person’s actions or reasons for their actions, is as crucial and riveting to the drama as the genre plots—horror, thriller, law and order, et cetera—that seem the films’ surface propulsion.