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TIFF 2012. Correspondences #3

The third entry of our two-critic TIFF correspondence highlights films by Reygadas, Assayas, Bertolucci and Baumbach.
Something in the Air

Dear Danny,

No apologies needed for your rich reportage. One of the nice things about this conversation format is that it allows me to jot down titles that I might have otherwise missed, helping me shine some light into the frequent disorientation of packed, conflicting schedules.

Incidentally, illumination is what the title of Carlos Reygadas’ new film promises. For the opening ten minutes or so, Post Tenebras Lux follows a tiny girl excitedly splashing in a muddy field, dogs and cows meandering around her as an incoming storm rumbles in the distance. The sun disappears behind clouds, and lightning flash silhouettes the lonely toddler. Reygadas is very clever at stuff like this, coming up with a vast, assertive composition and then letting unpredictable elements like children, animals and weather play their part in it. But that’s not enough: He has to further make his hand felt by smearing the corners of the image (already boxy from having been shot in the Academy ratio) with what looks like refracting vaseline, so that you view scenes (well, some scenes—the gimmick comes and goes) as if through the blurry iris of the bottom of a bottle.

The portrait of a vaguely troubled Mexican family that follows has plenty of raw material: class conflict, punched dogs, clammy bathhouse orgies, passages from Tolstoy read out loud, ten thousand mile-wide jump cuts to British rugby players, a Neil Young serenade. The assembly is deliberately fuzzy. When the little kids ask the ailing father if they can watch the Pink Panther, could they be referring not just to the cartoon but also to the slender, glowing Beelzebubian figure (horns and forked-tail and all) that twice ambles quietly into the household at night? For me, the most moving image is one of the simplest: as the family drives down a road, an empty space is suddenly filled by a pair of intertwined hands in close-up. Elsewhere, instinctive filmmaking becomes gaudy obscurantism. It’s a bit of a coincidence that I saw Harmony Korine’s latest before Post Tenebras Lux, as Reygadas has recently placed Gummo at the very top of his “Sight & Sound” all-time-best ballot. Both directors seem determined to operate on purely instinctive terms. Where Spring Breakers explodes and squishes exultantly all over the screen, however, this is a film still locked inside its maker’s head.

We finally crossed paths later that afternoon, Danny, and it’s too bad we didn’t have a more inspiring screening to share than Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air. (I don’t like the generic English title, by the way; the original Après mai is more poetic.) The year, 1971, is clearly of huge autobiographical import to the French auteur, who promptly sweeps us along with his youthful protagonists into a street riot. Though “la révolution” seems now like little more than graffiti on a wall, the characters fervently immerse themselves in the “new resistance” of slogans, posters, utopias and Molotov cocktails. The re-creation of student unrest and political engagement is vital and far from indulgent (Assayas is too smart for facile nostalgia), yet I was more interested in the film’s tranquil observation of people hooking up and wondering into the woods and drifting apart during parties. Problem is, I’m writing this only a few hours after seeing it, and I barely remember what those people look like. Is the epoch itself more important than the characters? There’s a sprinkling of Godard-speak (a film-within-the-film about Laos peasants is dismissed for its “bourgeois syntax”) and an air of Garrel, but in the end Assayas’ vision of the past hews a bit too close to something like, say, Taking Woodstock.

The search for the spirit of the French New Wave continues in Me and You, which is Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film in eight years (and his first in Italy in even longer). Maybe you’re a bigger fan of his than me, Danny, but I always thought that the superstar-Italian-filmmaker attention lavished on Bertolucci throughout the 1970s should have gone instead to the more interesting Marco Bellocchio (whose Dormant Beauty, by the way, I hope one of us gets to see here). The arena this time is the basement of a Roman skyscraper; the agitated yet surprisingly chaste pas de deux is enacted by a rebellious 14-year-old who resembles a squashed Malcolm McDowell and a slightly older artist who might be Liv Tyler’s stunt-double. As she feverishly tries to kick her dope habit and he learns Important Life Lessons, the camera sweeps and caresses them. It’s a nothing movie, really, barely a chance for the director (who’s been immobilized due to health problems) to shake the rust off his joints. And yet there’s something touching about the way the old sensualist continues to seek (and find) movement and beauty in deliberately cramped spaces. I kept thinking of Visconti directing Conversation Piece from his wheelchair, gazing at youth through a mix of fondness and envy.

Another Nouvelle Vague wannabe: Frances Ha, also known as the movie in which I finally came to love Greta Gerwig. Whether dashing and tripping through the streets of Brooklyn or literally honking in disapproval of a date’s unwanted advance, she has a kind of galumphing radiance that reminded me of Joan Cusack in the 80s. She also co-wrote the screenplay, which might explain why Noah Baumbach’s sprightly comedy is light on the trademark rancor of The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. A distinctly New York film done in a very Gallic style: black-and-white cinematography unexpectedly redolent of Jean Eustache, brisk editing, little emotional arcs broken, spun, and picked up. It’s buttery-light and with one or two too many little bows of optimism tied insistently toward the end. But when Gerwig faces the camera, merriment and anxiety perpetually mingling, the enchantment is sustained.

Looking forward to your discoveries.

Fern

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