Having recently wrapped its 54th incarnation, the San Francisco International Film Festival remains a vital nexus of premiering discoveries, acclaimed holdovers from other festivals, remastered classics, and sundry movie-lovers' events. The last category proved particularly varied and tantalizing this year, with the palatial Castro Theater supplying the stage for such cinephile happenings as diligent preservationist Serge Bromberg's lecture on the 3D aspects of earliest silents, a rather polarizing State of Cinema address by indie stalwart Christine Vachon, and a baroque sound-vs.-image concert that melded live Tindersticks performances with clips from the works of Claire Denis.
Though things kicked off on a forebodingly precious note with Beginners, Mike Mills's opening-night salvo of concentrated quirk (adorably uncloseted patriarchs! Ironic pixies! Acerbic dogs!), screenings of marathon wonders like Raúl Ruiz's droll labyrinth Mysteries of Lisbon, Andrei Ujica's sardonic documentary The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's sprawling sci-fi dystopia World on a Wire promptly made it clear that watching movies at SFIFF is anything but a featherweight affair.
I had already caught the Ruiz and the Ujica at Toronto last year, but I leapt at the chance to experience Fassbinder's elusive epic of paranoid futurama, a long-unavailable item in the late German wunderkind's oeuvre. Adapted from a novel by Daniel F. Galouye and originally released in 1973 as a two-part TV production, it imagines a world of cloddish noir detectives and sleek virtual projections in which the inquisitive protagonist (Klaus Lowitsch) gradually comes to seem like a renegade microchip in a corrupt, computerized system. Rocking a canny mise-en-scène that's at once glossily cutting-edge (circular camera movements, glass panes, and flickering monitors feature prominently) and transparently contemporary (what we clearly see is the 1973 of Munich corporate offices and systematic anxiety; here, as in Godard's Alphaville, the future is now), Fassbinder's film startles as a truly Borgesian, trenchant political vision of order as artificial reality.
Pair it with Christoph Hochhäusler's The City Below, and you have an arresting double bill of Teutonic capitalism dissections. No less deadpan than World on a Wire's robotic characters, Hochhäusler's triangle—a middle-aged banking plutocrat (Robert Hunger-Buhler), a young troubleshooter (Mark Waschke) and his wife (Nicole Krebnitz)—enacts a serpentine waltz of desire and disgust in which the lines between carnal seduction and business takeover blur pitilessly. "Neutrality has to be violated," somebody is overheard saying at an art gallery, and purgative emotional devastation is indeed one of the goals of this provocative film, coolly observing numb people fucking each other over—and just plain fucking each other—while slithering toward an apocalyptic punchline that achieves the kind of sickness-in-the-guts laceration Neil LaBute has been pursuing in vain for years.
While The City Below's gallery of predatory relationships and weary monsters suggests distant echoes of Nosferatu, Federico Veiroj's A Useful Life brings to mind the Murnau of The Last Laugh, though with the loss of one's uniform posited as something necessary and possibility-opening. Set largely inside a Montevideo cinematheque plagued by faulty projectors and dwindling patrons, it follows an art-house curator (played by real-life Uruguayan film critic Jorge Jellinek) as he goes through the literally monochromatic daily chores of testing theater seats, asking for donations, and setting up retrospectives. Told that the place he has seemingly dedicated most of his adult life to will be shutting down, the protagonist is forced into the outside world and, at first discombobulated, but with increasingly assured delight, to see and feel things he might know only through movies. A friend called Veiroj's gentle comedy an "anti-cinephile film"; I see it as an absolutely cinephiliac work, but one from a mature vantage point in which movie-love goes hand in hand with an awareness of the fragility of cultural institutions and a faith in romance extending beyond silver screens.
Perhaps only the documentary Let the Wind Carry Me, with its alluring behind-the-scenes glimpses of Flowers of Shanghai and In the Mood for Love, came close to matching A Useful Life in movie-buff pleasures. A fond portrait of Lee Ping-bin, the wizardly Taiwanese cinematographer behind many of the most visually astounding moments in the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai, and Tran Anh Hung, among others, the film pays eye-filling tribute to the man's understanding of color and light while, in interviews with his family, tactfully hinting at the toll a searching artist's dedication takes on his personal life.
The opening of The Future promises gruesome whimsy: A caged cat named Paw Paw (played by a puppet's furry limbs, voiced by writer-director Miranda July) laments its impending death while hoping for potential new owners. That said owners are played by July and Hamish Linklater as a Los Angeles couple with matching curly coifs and New Age singsongs doesn't exactly lower the twee level. It's something of a small miracle, then, that July's follow-up to Me and You and Everyone We Know manages to find its groove, sidestep the cutesy trapdoors it sets for itself, and pull these free-floating bits of oddball pathos together into an acutely yearning, strange, and even dark whole. A singular harlequin presence on screen, July brings an eye for mercurial forms and a sense of rhythm to what may ultimately be the most surreal study of artistic and parental dread since Eraserhead.
The Dish & the Spoon could have used some of its controlled weirdness; the difference between The Future and Alison Bagnall's slice of indie vaudeville is the difference between performance art and playing dress-up. The dish of the title, I suppose, is mumblecore axiom Greta Gerwig, who gets to show off her splenetic side as a pissed-off housewife who takes to the road in a string of aimless, semi-improvised brushes with a fellow damaged naïf (Olly Alexander, who resembles some discarded teenage Bob Dylan apparition from I'm Not There). It starts out not unpromisingly as a gender-reversed companion piece to Buffalo '66 (which Bagnall co-wrote), but quickly dissolves into an alternately spastic and drowsy mulch of Sundance-y clichés.
The festival's strongest offering by a female auteur came from Catherine Breillat, who follows her exceptional version of Bluebeard with The Sleeping Beauty, a similarly biting, deconstructive take on Charles Perrault enchantment. "I'm real and the rest is false," the pint-sized, prepubescent heroine (Carla Besnaïnou) says as she makes her way through an oneiric maelstrom of clocks, trains, trolls, and snow queens, though such absolute dichotomies prove increasingly mysterious in the film's playful scrutiny of the crawlspace between childhood and adolescence. "Delightful" is not a word often associated with Breillat's work, but it's a fitting description of the netherworld the filmmaker conjures up here, a fey and cruel dreamscape that combines provoking yet tranquil inquiries into accepted notions of budding sexuality with feisty comic asides closer to Zazie dans le Métro than to Fat Girl.
Another coming-of-age fairy tale of sorts could be found in Agustí Villaronga's Black Bread, which sets up camp in the rural, Franco-controlled Spanish spaces previously explored in Spirit of the Beehive and Pan's Labyrinth. Filtering the era's political upheavals through the unformed gaze of an 11-year-old boy (Francesc Colomer), it brims with evocative images and half-buried horrors, from the intimations of angel wings on an ailing teenager's shoulder blades to the underground caves where the villagers' hate crimes took place. All the elements are in place for an unnerving blend of wonderment and dread, yet Villaronga's surprisingly stodgy direction (a far cry from the haunted intensity of his 1987 shocker In a Glass Cage) keeps them from coalescing.
Directorial self-portraits were another motif running through the SFIFF, nowhere more blatantly than in Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross. Set in brutal medieval times envisioned as a series of digital tableaux with the seams deliberately showing, it envisions the auteur as illustrator, witness and chronicler, following Renaissance painter Bruegel (a grave Rutger Hauer) as he turns the brutalities around him into a vast, living canvas. Traces of Ruiz's Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke, and the works of Jarman and Greenaway can be felt, though Majewski's superficially striking ruminations on art feel academic next to them.
The filmmaker literally takes the center stage in the Romanian Aurora, which casts its own director, Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), at the center of a murder story that goes even further than Police, Adjective in systematically scrapping the genre trappings from its policier format. Largely composed of long takes of brick-faced people framed in doorways, it's an endurance test that nevertheless invites fascinating contemplation for its darkly comic view of crime (and cinema) as manual labor, with characters methodically building the proverbial walls that entrap them.
The most inspiring of these authorial theses, however, was Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, which has the vital Chilean documentarian seeking the overlapping zones between the political and the cosmic. "I'm convinced that memory has a gravitational force," Guzmán says at one point, and his film proceeds as a philosophical examination of the vastness of the universe and a nation's forgotten landscapes and troubled history, a historian-astronomer's plea for the need to gaze at the stars in the sky as closely as the graves in the ground. The result is graceful, resonant, and humbling.
A pair of curiously complementary studies in battle-of-the-sexes longing, obliviousness and disillusion rounded out my festival experience. Hahaha finds the prolific Hong Sang-soo in a structurally intrepid yet airy mood, fracturing its Seoul-set narrative into romantic triangles featuring aspiring poets, kooky tour guides, and even a ghostly appearance by legendary Korean military figure Admiral Yi, who materializes briefly a la Play It Again, Sam as the deadpan Bogie to the picture's fledgling Woody (Kim Sang-kyung). In what is easily Hong's funniest, but not deepest, effort, men and women break up and get back together, ogle each other, and get spanked for their trouble, and toast it all (again and again) as a pleasing memory.
The drinks that go down amiably in Hahaha get caught in people's throats in On Tour, SFIFF's closing night feature and a considerably less winsome take on male desperation and fortuitous connections. Mathieu Amalric, who also directed, plays ringleader to a transient circus of outcasts as a boozy, self-destructive TV producer touring France with a garrulous gaggle of American burlesque performers. A likably rambling survey of ephemeral community, a portrait of the artist as washed-up family man and pimp, and a quasi-documentary about brassy stage personas, Amalric's film also functions as a reminder of the festival's interest in works that venture behind the curtains of spectacle.
The San Francisco International Film Festival ran from April 21 – May 5.