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The Pleasures of Ambiguity

Highlights from New Directors/New Films, New York’s annual festival of emerging filmmakers.
Sauvage
Sauvage
New Directors/New Films (ND/NF) returns to the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art for its 48th edition, and once again proves that for New Yorkers it’s the key festival to discover an exciting new crop of young filmmakers, most of them presenting debut or second features. The program includes some movies previously covered on Notebook: Sofia Bohdanowicz’s MS Slavic 7, Peter Parlow’s The Plagiarists, and Mark Jenkin’s Bait (Berlin Film Festival premieres), Andrea Bussmann’s Fausto (Locarno Festival), Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray (Venice), Ognjen Glavonić’s The Load (Directors' Fortnight), and Eva Torbisch’s All Is Good (Locarno). While diverse, overall, this year’s slate is thoughtful and yet agile, with films that invite both risk and ambiguity.
Not since Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985) has there been a film in which the main character drifts into willful dissolution with as much abandon and panache as Léo (Félix Maritaud, BPM) in Camille Vidal-Naquet’s debut feature, Sauvage. The problematic word, “savage,” still pops up in French parlance with unsettling frequency, but in Vidal-Naquet’s film the savageness (wildness) and savagery (violence and cruelty) are psychologically complex, and skillfully deployed.
Léo is a street cub, in the fullest sense of the word. He is gamine, uncouth, lanky. He drinks and bathes in the Seine (poetic license, I’d like to think), sleeps in the streets, finds sex work in the protective darkness of what could be Bois de Boulogne. It is there that he also meets his love—a straight man, Ahd (Eric Bernard), who prostitutes himself with men for quick cash, but dreams of bigger things. To Léo, Ahd’s urge to get out is incomprehensible.
The opening shot shows Léo at a doctor’s office, describing his persistent cough. He is having trouble breathing, but other than that, life is grand. It takes just a few minutes before we realize the whole scene is a setup—Léo is with a client, not a real doctor. This quick turn then sets the mood for the entire film: Quickly paced, oscillating between play and earnest drama. Léo’s life revolves around cash, fast friendships, and his abiding love for Ahd. Léo is portrayed by Maritaud with naturalness that is hypnotizing to watch. Ahd, for his part, is unreadable, and also mesmerizing—a character construction that brings us close to Léo’s smitten, tormented point of view. No matter how much he tries he can never get through to Ahd, who shows genuine concern, even trades blows for Léo’s sake, but turns on him in an instant, displaying torturous homophobia. When Ahd finds a sugar daddy, his ticket out of hustling, a painful scene shows Léo trailing after him, receiving one annihilating blow after another. From there, it seems he might just slide way down into the hands of a casual torturer who takes S&M beyond humane bounds. This suspension, or ambiguity, in the liminal moral space gives Sauvage its edge.
Jacques Giroult’s cinematography stays rapturously engaged with the protagonists, favoring close-ups, with minimum distractions and a naturalist handheld touch that stresses the agility of gestures and of dialogue. Scene after scene, Vidal-Naquet’s original screenplay drives at the central question of what it means to Léo to be unfettered. How long can he keep up on his reckless course? Vidal-Naquet lets this question drop, without feeling pressured to answer it. What we get then is a particular slice in a young gay man’s life, a rebellious cry against sexual normativity, which he sees all around him.
A stylistically different quest drives Burak Çevik’s noir, Belonging. The film’s first part comes across as an essay film, and hints at why Çevik made the film. In a letter to his aunt, the director says in voiceover that the story he’s about to tell is as much his as it is hers. The opening is mysterious: interiors of rooms, crepuscular scenes, a voice and tone that promises a resolution of a crime. What follows, however, is almost a direct debunking of the preamble. In the next etude—Çevik’s entire film stands just slightly over 70 minutes—two young people meet and spend a night together. Nothing momentous happens, other than their stubborn, though hardly life-changing—or so it seems—mutual infatuation.
Çevik knows instinctively that once he’s sent us down the path of trying to ferret out how Belonging’s introduction and the main act fit, we can’t escape the morbid fascination of trying to put it all together. And does “belonging” in the title follow up on the director’s claim that this story is his, as much as his aunt’s—or does it escalate to a much more metaphysical realm, where to belong is to be thrust together, by fate? Çevik equally hints at both. The whole film then proscribes to what writer Vladimir Nabokov called the pull of ambiguity: There is power in clarity, for sure, but ambiguity can also be a hook; it sends the mind wondering down dark chambers. And so it is in Çevik’s little chamber piece cum family melodrama. Delicate and taut, it has us hanging on, eager, perhaps desperate for clues.
A similar conceit drives Qui Sheng’s feature debut, Suburban Birds. Early in the film, a team of engineers in China’s unidentified town interviews a few witnesses to a curious incident: Passersby in the street noted one day that a large building shifted in place. As the engineers stake out the terrain, they are to determine if geology could sabotage massive new constructions, or old ones, in the area. This much is unstated, but we are repeatedly shown the high-rises mushrooming in the distance. Meanwhile, the life in the town goes on; the authorities don’t seem to have been sufficiently alarmed, although at least one building later seems to be evacuated.
Qiu structures his film like a puzzle of small neatly fitting pieces, without giving us the entire picture. A group of schoolchildren goes about its daily forages in the area, ruminates on their future plans, plays a prank on the engineers, and sets out on a long walk to visit a friend when he fails to show up at school. Within this rather elliptical setup, we see again and again the interior of the local school building. At one point, a young engineer who most suspects that the area is unfit for construction—a water leak compromises the terrain’s stability—sneaks into an empty classroom (which appears to have been abandoned). Qiu shows him next having an affair with a witness to the big building’s shift, and also celebrating a birthday in a grim mood. Partly then, the film centers on the young engineer’s conscience, as his supervisors urge him to okay more construction.
Viewers familiar with China’s front-page news stories will easily fit into this picture the tragedy of Xinjian Primary School, in 2008, when hundreds of children were crushed to death. And while Qiu doesn’t draw any direct parallels, just a mere hint—a threat of a collapse—is enough to infuse his film with tension. The scheme leaves viewers suspended between the poignant banality of the children’s games and an uncertain future. Qiu dangles the latter, without tying the knots. In this sense, like Çevik, he revels in ambiguity. Perhaps more so, since in one scene, when two bird watchers on their stroll see the roaming children through binoculars, we are suddenly completely dislocated from the main story. Who are the bird watchers? Is their appearance random, and is this scene simultaneous to the stories of the children and the engineers, or is it—including the vision of the kids—a flashback that hints at past tragedy? The scene suggests that the entre film is conceived as an elaborate work of memory: Accentuating certain details, deliberately fuzzing others. By collapsing the temporal frame, it proves haunting, and inscrutable. 
New Directors/New Films runs March 27 – April 7, 2019 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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