The oldest film festival in the United States packs such a bloated salmagundi of screenings into 14 days that it can feel like cinephiliac punishment, but the necessity of individual choices ensures a singular, specialized experience for every attendee. The San Francisco International Film Festival is nothing if not facilitative of staunch personalization, requiring one to whittle down a surmountable program by gorging on blurbs and scuttlebutt, dismissing titles on capricious whims and educated hunches. It's something of a vast cinematic sand farm each critical drone ant must dig his path through alone.
And how often it is that our gut reactions to rumors and press pics prove themselves prescient. The films I've seen this year have little in common if viewed as a unified program, but remarkably, nearly all of the triumphs I witnessed—by which I mean individual scenes as much as entire movies—have been structurally unexpected and trenchantly subterranean, moments that seemed to undergo a gawky if earthy growth as I witnessed them. The best of international film art is now an industry of softly human moments; even a restored 1970s-era action-themed gem such as Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright simmers masculine tropes down to their molten essence rather than exploding them. And while not all attempts at subtle revelation have stuck with me beyond absorption, SFIFF 2010 has been, and perhaps will be remembered as, a year of successful susurri standing in quiet defiance against elephantine prestige.
Animal Heart. First-time director Séverine Cornamusaz's film Animal Heart bears more than a cursory resemblance to Christian Petzold's Jerichow—though not, significantly, to Petzold's vintage noir inspirations. Middle-aged Paul (Olivier Rabourdin) and his wife Rosine (Camille Japy) tend chickens, hogs, goats, and cattle on a small but busy farm isolated from modern society in the Swiss hills; this ethereal setting, populated by the dense browns of cabins and the soft gray-greens of clouds clinging to grass, allows Cornamusaz to whittle down the jaundiced, sickly love triangles of earlier, similar films into a transcendentally paced narrative of rustic dysfunction, assisted immeasurably by three intuitive performances. Far more menacing than the cuckolded husband of Jerichow, Rabourdin's Paul is, in particular, a chthonic tour de force of brutish Stanley Kowalski-esque grimaces and outbursts—only without the steady actorly-cum-academic aegis of Marlon Brando's “methoding.” Paul sensitively choreographs his homestead's goings-on, but rapes and pummels his wife when urges seize him, and accuses her of sleeping with the hired hand (Antonio Buil) he brings on when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Unlike countless other “suspicious husband” performances, Rabourdin's Paul is utterly, and intimidatingly, transparent, and it effectively buoys the somewhat tedious story; his gleaming-knife-eyes and monstrous facial lines seem a thin membrane between us and the character's perpetually warring instincts that manifest as surface rage and subterranean agony. The film's third act fixates unevenly on the gradually budding relationship between Paul and his more feminine-friendly Spanish employee (the guy wears patterned sweaters while sleeping amongst chickens), but Rabourdin's ferocity and Cornamusaz's psychologically savvy editing never flag. One fleeting but mesmerizing moment was an SFIFF '10 festival climax: Paul catches his farmhand tenderly seducing a local girl through a tussle of straw hay and quizzically, frightfully, studies their movements before retreating and venting his sexual handicaps through a shotgun.
Everyone Else. Everyone Else might be the quintessential sophomore production; German director Maren Ade has embraced a slightly larger budget to pull off a bloated visual triumph comprising two undiluted hours of her unique socio-filmic aesthetic. That aesthetic, however, is not for everybody. The movie centers on a beachside vacationing young couple, the loopy Gena Rowlands-spirited Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and the wannabe architect Chris (Lars Eidinger), who are staunchly determined to avoid conforming to the dim patterns of the title concept; this recalcitrance takes the form of infantile word- and role-play, spontaneous yet stilted sex, and a hipper-than-thou attitude leveled at other lovers unlucky enough to cross their path. It's all captured with fluid, handheld cameras that allow characters to slip in and out of a semi-permeable frame and an intuitive, nearly Rohmer-esque rhythm of pans and reaction shots—but the plotless sequence of tetchy squabbles and crinkled cutesy faces quickly becomes repetitive, and occasionally forced (one oddly-lit, clumsily-performed sex scene seems to drag on for no other reason than to impose the couple's communication difficulties upon us). There's a heart of sincerity beating beneath the slick surface of Everyone Else (it's generally true to life and to love, aside from the arbitrary practical joke that closes the film), but exceptionally well-shot, plodding authenticity is still plodding.
Alamar. An occasionally transfixing, but just as occasionally perplexing, hybrid of verité still life poetry and casually scripted coming-of-age tropes, Pedro González-Rubio's Alamar follows a genuine father and son as they embark on one last fishing trip off the coast of Mexico before the boy's Italian mother whisks him away to Rome. Documentarian voiceovers and windowboxed home movies at the start of the film prove the characters' veracity and their amicable acceptance of what life has brought them; Jorge and Roberta, the schismatic couple, possess a profoundly mutual understanding of each other's role as a parent, and their incompatibilities as domestic partners. But as the film shifts toward wordless observations of Jorge, his adorably curious son Natan, and his senescent but expert fisherman father prosaically enacting what feel like mythic seaman routines (drinking, lounging, catching fish, gutting fish, catching crab, eating crab, harassing hungry egrets), we feel an almost Herzogian anxiety over Rubio's rendering of the content as “fiction.” The ethics of a half-improvised, half-staged “natural” setting are far less crucial than the lyrical effect on the screen, of course, but the remarkable seaside scenes—examining the placid, symbiotic affinity Jorge and his entourage have with their environment, a relationship impossible to editorialize—are undoubtedly cheapened by González-Rubio's insistence at presenting Jorge, Roberta, et al as a cast in a film. Granted, Herzog's documentaries often loosened their veracity for the sake of storytelling, but González-Rubio comes at it backward, unabashedly grafting a narrative rife with Oedipal emotionalism onto real flesh, blood, and marshland possessing a wholly separate story left mostly untold. The director's gift as a patient cameraman—truly a stenographer of God's stimuli—presents us with a Kracauer wet dream of primitive, omnific rawness, but it's hard to resist taking Rubio's “script” to task, regardless of the remarkable, ad-libbed naturalism achieved, when Jorge's father waxes pseudo-philosophical about the cosmic ache of growing old. Alamar is undoubtedly an aural-visual masterpiece. But with fictive elements come fictive responsibility.
Don Hertzfeldt, Persistence of Vision Award. Thirtysomething cult animator Don Hertzfeldt looked half-embarrassed and half-terrified while taking the stage to accept one of the festival's lifetime achievement awards. “I think they'll probably call me 30 years from now or so and say, 'Uhhh…'” he gravelly stated. For most of the evening, however, his ornately crude cartoons did the talking. A roughly hour-length program comprising the entirety of Don's output from the last decade or so preceded a brief Q&A, and the artist's growth under a warm, obstreperously analog incubation over the last 10 years is undeniable. From the chronological start with Billy's Balloon, Hertzfeldt has excelled at angular visual gags—many of which, he pointed out in the evening's interview, were inadvertently swiped from Buster Keaton—and iconic, surreal pseudo-catchphrases, such as the immortal freshman mantra “My spoon is too big” from the Oscar-nominated Rejected. But his most recent shorts, parts one and two of a trilogy regarding the neurologically disordered Bill, pair the subversive Hertzfeldt aesthetic with a gnarled human logic: When Bill wets himself and has lysergic visions of men with bulbous fishheads, you begin to worry about what you would do if your world was similarly disintegrating. Hertzfeldt's ambition occasionally dwarfs his talent (the sci-fi Kubrick homage Meaning of Life was, apropos of its inspiration, only marvelous to look at and nothing more), but his wholly original visual style and dedication to crafting what are, at their core, alt-culture think pieces suggests a career of continuing and easily likeable interest. If he ever makes that feature-length film he spoke of while basking in his POV award glory, he might just crack the periphery of the mainstream radar—possibly to his chagrin.
Domain. Béatrice Dalle icily rules the action of Patric Chiha's suggestively successful debut Domain. As Nadine, a rock star mathematician slowly losing her marbles to alcoholism, Dalle exudes an arrogant, feral sexuality that makes her addiction seem irrepressibly iconoclastic; her talon-like high heels and asphyxiating black outfits imply an irresistibly independent, high-cultured ruthlessness (and I still can't get that erotic gap between her front teeth out of my mind). Nadine takes her young, socially awkward nephew, Pierre (Isaie Sultan), under her wing and the film follows their relationship's gestation from borderline cross-generational manipulation to an emotionally mature but scathing give-and-take. Chiha's dialogue occasionally over-limns his attempted milieu (Nadine's brief conversations with other math and science professors seem included only to establish her social circle's left-brain hipsterism), but his skill with actors, moody lighting, and visceral sound design (the clacking of leather shoes and snapping of foresty twigs abound) achieves a sustained undertone of somber but exhilarating incest. One thumping club scene in the movie's middle, though a jarring pause in the action, is a tour de force of sound and image; as a smooth, bare-chested eunuch of a singer croons a soft teenage hymn, we observe Pierre coming into his own, Nadine spiraling downward, and the pulsing of strobe lights gently drawing sublimated sexual tension to the surface.
Cairo Time. As she's often typecast as the catty, overly confident voice of status quo-patrolling reason (such as in Six Feet Under or Far from Heaven), Patricia Clarkson must have leapt at the chance to play the middle-aged woman-in-waiting Juliette of Cairo Time. Patiently vacationing in Egypt while anticipating a visit from her U.N.-employed husband, Juliette delves into the sites and customs of Cairo culture with the tall, dark, handsome friend of her spouse, Tareq (Alexander Siddig). The film, written and directed by Ruba Nadda, is nothing if not flattering to Clarkson: Her silky dresses and sun-dipped complexion blend into the golden desert landscapes with drippily romantic ease, and despite her age, Egyptian men are still (believably) following her toned, tanned flesh up the street in droves. But the movie's central not-quite-love story is a predictable handicap, and attempts at spicing up the plot with vague crises both international (Juliette's bus is stopped by corrupt police) and domestic (she also becomes briefly entangled in an unwanted pregnancy dispute) melt away like butter pats in the Gaza heat. One wants to recommend Cairo Time for Clarkson's unusually nuanced protagonist, but the actress isn't given much to do aside from pose beside the crepuscular pyramids. The film sputters with the open-mouthed mindlessness of condescending tourism.
White Material. Nursing a hangover from 30-plus shots of rum, Claire Denis dresses up Isaach De Bankolé with rebel gear and a seeping gunshot wound and strands him amidst a tenebrous South African civil war to help her shake off the warm and fuzzies. In his unflappably inert, nihilistic state he encounters preteen armies with rifles and spears who genuflect to his iconic anti-establishmentism; similarly dressed, vaguely corrupt, but palpably senseless military men who'd love to slit his throat as silently and deliberately as they bury daggers into gun-toting children; and an oddly inchoate interpretation of race relations, mostly explored through the French-blooded family tree that runs a dilapidated coffee plantation on the outskirts of an unnamed township. Isabelle Huppert's determined coffee heiress is a well-meaning smear of white caught between an equivocating husband, a plump fat-of-the-land complacent father (Michel Subor), and an indolently ruthless son (Nicolas Duvauchelle). Conflating the tense and the vacant, the parched and the slick, Denis affixes De Bankolé's metaphysical cipher of an insurgent as the film's political vortex, but none of the tingly violence sticks; the narrative has allegorical symbols to spare but a paucity of correlating subtext. The muddled politics are an inherent metaphor for South Africa's own confusion, of course (the question is less “Which side are you on?” than “How well can you aim?”), but they numb the violence to subcutaneous pins and needles. This is a frightfully empty, clumpy movie—in other words, a horror film.
Father of My Children. Littered with deceptively “small” moments of disarming candor, Father of My Children follows a small family through a brief period of financial hardship, domestic grief, and adolescent self-discovery. The plot's details are granulated with so many near-clichés that the level of verisimilitude managed is astonishing: Grégoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is a film producer whose company is deep in debt, and whose eldest daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing) is beginning to discover the modest collection of skeletal improprieties in her father's closet. The movie eventually fractures into episodic lopsidedness, but gentle, meticulously organic performances, especially from Chiara Caselli, as Grégoire's ever-patient wife, protect the multi-pronged story from sagging under intermittent weepiness (even the prepubescent daughters, goofing off while climbing ancient chapels and fighting back hot tears while rolling with life's inevitable punches, are offered an appropriate amount of breathing room). And while over-baked by a few scenes, director Mia Hansen-Løve has movingly composed a bridge between the unspeakable responsibility of parenthood and the numinous suffering required to make films: a ferocious, merciless bridge, but one made of fondness none the less.
The 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival runs from April 22 to May 6.