You can tell a lot about a film festival from its opening-night selection. Things got underway at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival with a gala screening of The Last Mistress, and it’s tempting to see the choice of Catherine Breillat’s visually lush, sexually pungent period piece as reflective of the fest’s aesthetics—classy yet raw, comfortably sturdy yet still invigoratingly hard to pin down. When Asia Argento’s ferocious Spanish enchantress tears through the film’s lavish surfaces, it’s in perfect synch with the timbre of a festival that, celebrating its 51st year, remains heady with surprise. Indeed, La Argento’s three movies in the running (in addition to Breillat’s caustic bodice-ripper, she also stormed through Abel Ferrara’s splendidly sordid Go Go Tales and papa Argento’s loony Mother of Tears) gave some idea of the variety of the cinematic offerings screened over the course of two weeks, during which the dedicated filmgoer could swim in the impressionist waves of Sokurov’s Alexandra or pick a fight with someone who thought Leave Her to Heaven was “trashy.”
Of the West Coast premieres, few were as anticipated as Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’s searching and troubling examination of the infamous photographs taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. The “bad apples” are given the floor, facing Morris’s Interrotron camera with their side of the scandal while the filmmaker deliberately unsettles the notion of objectivity with heavily aestheticized interludes (a looming guard dog snapping at the lens in slow motion, a prison corridor suddenly filled with swirling shredded paper). Lynndie England speaks of getting a prisoner to masturbate as a “present” for her birthday, a burst of computer data is made to suggest a cosmic explosion: What’s happened to the universe? Without mounting apologias, Morris surveys the human faces of a system in which darker things have become “acceptable.” The film guarantees no clear-cut, comforting j’accuse, just the unending search for the truth in the most ominous aspects of American power.
Murkiness is also the goal in Béla Tarr’s The Man from London, an epic of subterranean splendor and magisterial moral heft. There was palpable awe in the audience during the Mr. Arkadin-flavored opening as the Hungarian auteur’s prowling camera languidly pans up the hull of a ship and then composes a doleful view of a seaside railway station, full of arguments half-heard in the dark, men in heavy coats, and deep blacks that look like engine grease. The basis is a mystery novel by Georges Simenon, but Tarr’s film is noir intrigue distilled to desolation and chill; a film of camera movements that is nevertheless fascinated with faces (most notably Tilda Swinton’s), it feels closer to Tarkovsky’s Stalker than The Third Man. The gaze of the camera is similarly (but far less heavily) central in José-Luis Guerín’s marvelous In the City of Sylvia, where sensuous poetry is made from such fleeting grace notes as the play of light on a wall, the streets of a French city, a sketch, a couple riding the train. Presenting it, J. Hoberman called it “cinephilic in the best sense of the word,” and it’s easy to see what he means: Guerín seems to reach back to cinema’s very origins to rediscover the prodigious joy of looking at (and feeling) the world.
In the City of Sylvia’s freshness was the kind amply evident in Ermanno Olmi’s justly beloved early works (Il Posto, I Fidanzati), though One Hundred Nails, his new (and, according to the veteran Italian director, final) film, offers no such pleasures. Ponderously allegorical, it forges a Jesus figure out of a philosophy professor who, feeling the weight of society’s disconnect from everyday life, follows his “moral duty” and nails a library’s supply of theological texts to the floor, throws the keys to his BMW off a bridge, and settles down in an abandoned house by the Po River. Is this back-to-basics parable Olmi’s critique of postmodernism? Despite a few moments of limpid emotional insight, it’s best to just call it Into the Mild.
Another ’60s art-house staple, Czech New Waver Jirí Menzel presented I Served the King of England, a characteristically bittersweet bit of Eastern European whimsy. Taken from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, whose works were first adapted by Menzel in his 1966 Oscar-winner Closely Watched Trains, the film follows the trajectory of a Chaplinesque waiter through a series of hotels that grows more luxurious as Czechoslovakia’s situation during the German invasion grows more distressing. Menzel’s placid melancholy and deftness with physical comedy keep this slender fairy tale from slipping into unctuous Benigni territory.
Continuing with old masters, the festival also saw entries by Claude Chabrol (A Girl Cut in Two), Carlos Saura (Fados) and Eric Rohmer (The Romance of Astreé and Céladon). Girl Cut in Two breaks no new ground in the director’s autopsies of bourgeois façades, though the familiar narrative of privileged rot and familial tensions benefits greatly from Ludivine Sagnier’s charm at the axis of a kinky society triangle, and from Chabrol’s effortless drollness in the face of the ridiculous. Saura in Fados essays another fluid, sinuous celebration of musical performance as cultural heritage, examining Portugal’s fado tradition in a procession of gorgeous tableaux featuring such noted performers as Carlos do Carmo, Lila Downs, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso. History seeps into the numbers via archival clips of Portuguese upheavals, though the film is foremost an inspired studio evocation, in which Saura’s camera collects graceful silhouettes to mingle memory and artifice. Both directors could be fairly accused of receding into rarified polishing of pet themes in their twilight pictures; leave it to 88-year-old Rohmer, then, to offer one of the festival’s most experimental works with Romance of Astreé and Céladon, a radically quaint incarnation of open-air theater circa 1607. The Chinese boxes of self-reflexivity—a 6th-century pastoral drama imagined by 17th-century players and presented by a Nouvelle Vague master in the new millennium—never get in the way of Rohmer’s ravishing examination of the folly of love. Like In the City of Sylvia, it seems to transport you to an earlier, purer century.