Dear Kelley and Fern,
As you both noted earlier, John Woo’s Manhunt was a thrilling, tongue-in-cheek compendium of the director's best qualities. This kind of masterful self-reflexivity may rub some the wrong way—remember, at the time, the hostility to De Palma’s Femme Fatale and Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. as if they were only Directors' Greatest Hits?—but when done smartly this is no mere masturbation, but a celebration and self-questioning, honed to deft precision, of an artist’s perennial themes.
Such is the case with one of the few great feature films I've seen here in Toronto, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. In remarkable contrast to his last film, the coked-up cartoon Dog Eat Dog, it is a self-consciously austere drama of a wearied priest (a tremendous, hollowed-out Ethan Hawke) of a minuscule congregation housed in the oldest church in America, one dismissively dubbed the ‘souvenirs shop’ by the newer, larger, more populous and lucrative Abundant Heart church nearby. The increasingly tormented internal struggle of this lonely doubter is drawn out by the 250th anniversary of his church—an event overshadowed by the importance and success of Abundant Heart and tainted by being sponsored by a local millionaire—and the struggle facing a young married couple in his parish, the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), and her environmental activist husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who is wracked with despair over man’s future on earth.
For this remarkably focused picture, Schrader pulls hard from not just his own cinema and its spiritual yearning that twists into violence and (self-)abuse, but also from Bergman’s Winter Light (1962) and his beloved Carl Th. Dreyer. Above all, the film liberally adapts Robert Bresson, specifically the mixture of religious abnegation and egotism of Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and the specter of malaise for a new generation from The Devil, Probably (1977), with which First Reformed shares a fixation on the ecological destruction of the earth as a locus of spiritual doubt.
It even features a direct quotation of the joyful bike riding sequence from Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), but as with all of these sources of inspiration, Schrader remarkably makes them his own, sublimating them into a beautifully stripped-down mise en scène that seems to emanate from the intelligence and pain of Hawke’s Reverend Toller. His rectory, where at night he drinks copious whisky and writes a diary of his conflicted prayers and self-disgust, has the false austerity of a man who probably would envy and perhaps even nurture the pain of Dreyer and Bresson’s heroes. Abundant Heart—a warm and helpful institution, but mammoth, political-savvy and anonymously maze-like—seems on another spiritual planet from Toller’s sparse congregation, so under-populated it allows him to focus nearly all of his time and spiritual support—and perhaps his own desires and hope—on Mary and her troubles.
The tasteful abstinence of Toller’s own life points towards a self-styling that the reverend will increasingly indulge in, ignoring his worsening health for the sake of candle-lit late-night drinking and writing sessions. A suicide intercedes in his counseling and it accentuates the pressures of the larger forces—the church organization, the town’s polluting millionaire, the generation after his—that leads the film to evolve in a devious, dark direction. By the end, Schrader has escaped both the real world and the religious in the tempting direction of fantasy and delusion. Heretofore without music, the score of electronic composer Lustmord looms aphotic, and what started as story of restraint and dignity teeters towards a fearsome extremity of emotion and pulp violence. It is thrilling. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more bracing film experience at this festival.
An entirely different but no less abrasive drama of conflicted desire and yearning is Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor Caniba, a documentary portrait of convicted cannibal Issei Sagawa, who killed and partially ate his girlfriend, Renée Hartevelt, in 1981. Caniba finds Sagawa now at home in Japan, aged and infirmed, and has approached its attention-grabbing topic in a method as unexpected and confrontational as these filmmakers' Leviathan (2012), which took an action-horror approach to documenting the work of Atlantic fishermen. For this subject who attaches so much sexual if not spiritual pleasure to the consuming of human flesh, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor photograph Sagawa—and his brother, Jun—in extreme close-ups, many extremely out of focus, the camera and the blurriness roving over the often mask-like visage of Sagawa, who himself seems partially frozen and drifts into and out of mental clarity. The screen image becomes like a skin itself, the texture of the skin explored and played with by the camera, so that fascination with Caniba amounts to fascination with skin—human flesh—that the audience consumes. Never less than entrancing, the experience is nevertheless somewhat monotonous—forever attuned to the gnomic surface covering a disturbed person’s inner soul—and the ethics of this approach are quite uncomfortable.
The film’s very best scene, and also its hardest to watch, has Jun Sagawa paging through a graphic novel his brother made illustrating his experience killing and eating Renée Hartevelt. While we get a bit of information about Sagawa’s crime and intentions both from an opening title card and from some terse and cryptic admissions he makes throughout the portrait, it is this sequence which effectively narrates to us what exactly he did. The images Sagawa himself drew, crude but unexpectedly evocative and nuanced in black ink accented by red and blue highlights, stand in for him (or the film) telling us the atrocious particulars, and meanwhile the camera records Jun encountering for the first time both the comic and details of his brother’s past actions and desires. It is a confrontation that audibly stuns and revolts him, as it may do to Caniba’s audience. In fact, while ostensibly about Issei Sagawa, perhaps the most unforeseen aspect of this controversy-courting project is the emergence of his brother Jun as co-protagonist. Jun begins the film seemingly only as a minder or helper for his infamous, now disabled brother, but part of Caniba’s mystery as a film lays in how much Jun knows of, understands or sanctions not just his brother’s crime, but the desires that lead to it and how they afflict him today. We look to him as one would look towards the interpreter of an oracle. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), Paravel and Castaing-Taylor discover that Jun has his own fetishes—not criminal, but definitely in a extreme and violent direction—as well as his own unfulfilled desires and loneliness. While the film’s risky, albeit tiresome and possibly dubious expressionist technique—applying an interpretation of inner psychology to the external texture of the film—is completely aligned with Issei Sagawa, I was myself left with the desire for a film that saw its subject in both men and took its form in a different direction.