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The National and the Global Intersect at the 2019 Jerusalem Film Festival

Even the most casual exchanges at the festival ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a mantra: “It’s complicated.”

Chuck Bowen

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Peaches and Cream
Photo: The Jerusalem Film Festival

Gur Bentwich’s Peaches and Cream contains a running joke that resonated in the context of the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival. Bentwich follows a director named Zuri (played by Bentwich) who undergoes an odyssey after his new film, also called Peaches and Cream, has been indifferently received on its opening weekend. In various encounters, people tell Zuri that they prefer European to Israeli cinema—claims that feel ironic given the way that the lurid and feverish nature of Bentich’s film feels pointedly European and American in sensibility. Peaches and Cream’s wandering camera, eroticized women, and narcissistic macho anxiety suggests a Fellini production as viewed through the prism of contemporary American films like After Hours, Listen Up Philip, and Birdman, creating a friction. Zuri and Bentwich—the two are deliberately indistinguishable—have both made a quasi-European film only to be discounted for not being European enough for Israeli cinephiles.

I thought of Bentwich’s running joke when the international critics’ delegation of which I was a part—and which also included writers from China, Poland, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, and Slovakia—was treated to a dinner with a group of Israeli critics. Peaches and Cream came up in conversation, with one Israeli writer voicing his irritation with the film’s references to Western cinema, the sort of fealty which he said was part of the problem of Israel’s cinematic exposure to the rest of the world. Western films reference one another, he said, creating an echo chamber that serves as an affirmation of legacy, while Israeli cinema tends to emulate not itself but the West as well. This writer’s sentiments echoed comments I heard at the Warsaw Film Festival last year, from critics and filmmakers from various countries.

Such conversations are reminders that pop culture is one of the West’s great legacies and means of influence. (In Tel Aviv for a few days after leaving the festival, I noticed that every bar in my neighborhood played vintage American music, from Bob Dylan to the Talking Heads to Alice Cooper to the Notorious B.I.G.) Another joke in Peaches and Cream almost subliminally parodies the neuroses that such an attitude may inspire: Zuri fights to keep posters of his film up in public, trying to protect them from being obscured by other notices.

Relatedly, I saw a Peaches and Cream sticker that had been stuck on a large banner for Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, a hot-ticket item at the festival. The banner’s commanding image—of a tormented and gray-bearded Antonio Banderas, who won the best actor trophy at this year’s Cannes for his performance, casting a shadow in the shape of Almodóvar himself against a red backdrop—had been merged with an advertisement for Bentwich’s film, the round sticker providing Banderas with a makeshift eyepatch that cheekily embodied the very intersection between Israeli and international cinema that drives the JFF at large. The festival had one of the most eclectic lineups that I’ve seen, including vintage restorations, lurid thrillers, many Cannes entries, notable American films from last year, documentaries, shorts, and homegrown Israeli productions, which were often the most difficult to get into.

Generally, my fellow critics didn’t care much for Peaches and Cream, finding it narcissistic and borderline sexist—qualities which struck me as part of the film’s joke. There’s no way that an actor-director, other than maybe Kevin Costner, could give himself this many close-ups without a satirical intent. Peaches and Cream is a messy and unruly film, at least until the requisite redemption provided by the third act, and it indicates the Jerusalem Film Festival’s taste for bold formalism. Most festivals open with a bland audience-pleaser, while the 36th edition of the festival kicked off with Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite, which is the very embodiment of confrontational political cinema.

Parasite initially suggests a South Korean cover of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with a family that literally lives under the surface of mainstream society conning its way into jobs with a wealthy household. In the film’s first hour, the greatest achievement of Bong’s career to date, viewers are encouraged to enjoy the poor family’s ruse, which the filmmaker renders with svelte long takes and pans that elucidate shifting modes of power while providing visceral visual pleasure. Bong’s kinetics are also a form of misdirection, as the film’s tone gradually curdles, with the class resentment that’s been percolating under the narrative’s surface eventually exploding into a massacre that suggests a microcosm of both revolution and genocide. As always, Bong clinches his themes and symbolism too tightly, but Parasite is still a significant comeback from the exhaustingly broad Snowpiercer and Okja.

The setting of Parasite’s premiere at the JFF intensified the film’s power, as it was shown at the Sultan’s Pool, a striking outdoor amphitheater from which you can see the walls of the Old City, the Tower of David, and even, from certain angles, portions of Palestine. Now a legendary venue that’s hosted the likes of Eric Clapton and Dire Straits, the Sultan’s Pool was a site for children’s sacrifices centuries earlier, before it was later modernized by Herod into a portion of Jerusalem’s water supply system. Before Parasite’s premiere, there were many speeches testifying to Israel’s dedication to cinema, including an appearance by the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin. This pageantry isn’t without tension, given the conservative government’s hostility to films that are critical of authority, which was expressed by the audience’s traditional booing of the Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, who’s wanted to cut the government’s funding of the arts, and who appeared at the JFF this year via a pre-taped speech. Which is to say that, in a setting freighted with ghosts and nesting political tensions, in a city and country with as much cultural baggage as any in the world, a left-wing horror film like Parasite carries extra weight. It even feels a bit like a dare.

Film festivals can be a paradox. On one hand, they’re the ideal of the world most artists and critics would like to live in, one where like-minded people share the experience of art, food, and drink as communion, though they’re also dream realms that cast a potentially insidious illusion of rebellion, giving audiences a faux catharsis that enables the very repression that artists and critics are often railing against. Aren’t festivals, regardless of the politics of the art they program, ultimately P.R. for governments that still do whatever they like? (Perhaps Regev either doesn’t understand this possibility or is expertly playing her role as a liberal foil.) In such contexts, I think of Matrix Reloaded, in which the hero learns, in what must be one of the most convoluted speeches in the history of cinema, that he’s a tool for providing an appearance of hope and choice to a population that’s still nevertheless controlled.

Yet it also feels unfair to single out the festival experience for this train of thought, as all artistic endeavors run the risk of rendering palatable the sources of their ire—a topic we also touched on at the critics’ dinner. Art opens us up to other cultures and ideas, but it can also lull us into a kind of waking sleep, making us think we’ve initiated change merely by going to a festival or watching a film or posting something critical on Facebook or Twitter. And this danger of art is especially material when one gorges on the fruits of creativity for days at a time. The act of sipping a drink and eating nice dishes before the Parasite premiere while surveying the Palestinian landscape does, for instance, carry a certain frisson. Many films playing at the festival were concerned with the legacy of Israel, particularly regarding Palestine, and the Israeli critics and press openly spoke of these ambiguities. Even casual exchanges with journalists and average filmgoers alike ended with some variation of a sentiment that arose as a recurring festival manta: “It’s complicated.”

The JFF seems intent on working within the system by using government funding as well as donations to both preserve and establish an Israeli cinematic canon, which it compares and contrasts with the cinema of the rest of the world. Many of the festival’s screenings were held in the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which is located near the Sultan’s Pool and houses a film archive. The delegation was invited to take a tour of the archive, and in the labs we saw ravishing silent images of Jerusalem desert that have since been modernized as part of the city. We also spoke with people who are restoring films from Israel and other countries. Several restorations played at the festival, among them Amos Guttman’s 1986 crime drama Bar 51 and Clemente Fracassi’s 1953 opera Aida, a stagey yet hypnotic Verdi adaptation featuring a gorgeous Sophia Loren and Technicolor that might make the artists of Hammer Films blush.

Color is used to florid and rapturous effect in another JFF selection, Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão. The film tells one of the oldest of melodramatic tales, following two sisters who’re separated from one another in 1950s-era Brazil by a patriarchal system that fetishizes female obedience. Eurídice (Carol Duarte) is an aspiring pianist, while her older sister, Guida (Julia Stockler), is a free spirit who runs off with a Greek sailor. Returning home single and pregnant, Guida is rejected by their father, Manuel (Antonio Fonseca), who calls her a slut and lies to each girl about the other in order to keep them apart. It’s a ruse that will haunt the family for the rest of their lives.

Starting with the film’s opening, a humid fantasy sequence in a tropical forest that serves as a metaphor for the girls’ eventual plight, Aïnouz goes stylistically big, utilizing a swooping camera and a wrenching score to sweep us up in Eurídice and Guida’s longing for one another, which resembles romantic passion. This texture gives The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes, a streak of perversity that’s amplified by the explosion of harlequin reds and blues that signify dwarfed desire. Though this film has an unimpeachably feminist sensibility, Aïnouz also evinces remarkable sympathy for Manuel, a square who’s stymied by his devotion to a hypocritical culture. A shot of the man waiting for his “good” daughter and her child in a restaurant, while the “bad” daughter spies on them unseen, is among the most haunting images I’ve seen this year.

Colors serve the story of Aïnouz’s film, while color is much of the story driving Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, a Chinese gangster drama that grows increasingly hallucinatory as it somewhat moseys toward its climax. The narrative opens on a man with a past, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), as he meets a woman, Liu (Gwei Lun-mei), from the wrong side of the tracks. We soon learn that Zhou is waiting for a different woman, though Liu assures him of her loyalty. But the play of light and rain across these arresting faces is more commanding than this expositional business, with Diao soon splintering his plot into suggestive abstraction, as we learn how Zhou became a hunted man enmeshed in a war between crooks and law enforcers. The plot becomes so riven with betrayals and reversals that one’s encouraged to digest the film as pure poetry, homing in on the explosive hues and stunning action scenes and foreboding shadows and, particularly, the pervading feeling of rootlessness and loss that’s occasionally exacerbated by brutal violence. The Wild Goose Lake is a ballad of aggression and decay, relating a shaggy dog story that’s truly a portrait of a country eating itself alive.

Color has a colder and more sinister purpose in two of the other thrillers I saw at JFF. In Vivarium, through sheer force of will and formalism, director Lorcan Finnegan makes a potentially trite premise eerie and suggestive. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a couple looking to move in together, and on a whim they agree to look at a townhome in a yuppie neighborhood that they’re sure they’ll despise. The neighborhood is revealed to represent corporate efficiency and impersonality to the ultimate degree, with identical, unforgettably hideous pea-green homes that suggest Monopoly pieces as arranged by the Tim Burton of Edward Scissorhands. The neighborhood is so generic, in fact, that Gemma and Tom get lost trying to leave, until it’s revealed that they’re trapped here via supernatural means, and forced to raise a child (Senan Jennings) who suggests an ill-tempered robot, screaming at a glass-shattering pitch when he isn’t fed on time.

Finnegan understands that to explain his premise too much is to dispel its power, and the vagueness of his narrative serves to place the audience in his protagonists’ shoes. The filmmaker also doesn’t over-emphasize the obvious thematic hook, which is that Gemma and Tom’s no-exit situation suggests a nightmarish version of the disappointment that can arise when people succumb to the social pressure to mate, procreate, and attain boring jobs in the name of respectability. As precisely made as Vivarium is, with irrational images that are worthy of classic horror cinema, it’s all concept. Gemma and Tom are merely sketches of the fear and ennui that arrive on the cusp of reaching middle age. The characters’ immediate accommodation of their new hell feels truthful, but it also robs Vivarium of urgency. Once one accepts its message, which is clear early on, there’s nowhere else for the film to go.

In certain fashions, Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe is reminiscent of Vivarium, though it’s a richer and more unsettling work. Both films feature intensely symmetrical imagery and rich colors that suggest a mockery of the emotions that are being suppressed by the rigid settings. But there’s more mystery and emotional variety in Little Joe; one can’t quite pinpoint the meaning of Hausner’s aesthetic flourishes, such as deliberately unmotivated dolly shots that cut characters out of certain frames in order to emphasize windows or other passageways. And why does a laboratory for breeding plants suggest a Wes Anderson set, with clothes that match the colors of certain pieces of furniture? This color scheme subliminally complements the plant that Alice (Emily Beech, who won the best actress prize at this year’s Cannes for her performance) has bred. Her creation, which she calls “Little Joe” after her son, Joe (Kit Connor), is obscenely fake-looking, suggesting a combination of a rose and a penis. When the plant is stimulated by human talk, it opens up into full bloom, its bright red head serving to satiate the yearning emanating from Alice, a single mother, and her workaholic compatriots.

The plant is engineered to trigger happiness in humans, a concept that reveals how alien the notion of human interaction is to Alice, who rebuffs her poignantly worshipful colleague, Chris (Ben Whishaw). But Alice, a control freak, stymies the plant in a way that reflects her own alienation, rendering it incapable of reproducing. The plant strikes back, gifting human happiness at a price that steers Little Joe into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory, leading to a brilliant joke: that Alice, in her self-absorption, can’t see the invasion that’s engulfing the world around her. At times, this stark, sad, weirdly exhilarating film also suggests David Cronenberg’s The Fly, similarly boiling a potentially sprawling plot down to a few settings and characters, evoking an aura of clammy claustrophobia. Cronenberg’s film ended with an operatic crescendo, however, while Hausner keeps us trapped in her hermetic world, in which a plant teaches humans to abandon the possibility of ecstasy.

At the JFF, I missed Yolande Zauberman’s much-buzzed-about M, a documentary about the child abuse that’s wrought in an Orthodox Jewish community, due to considerable demand. I did, though, catch a few documentaries that should earn attention outside of the festival circuit. Ai Weiwei’s The Rest continues the artist’s project of exposing the refugee crisis in Europe, in which countries like France, Turkey, and Greece fight over where to store people who’re fleeing from endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and others. Thematically and aesthetically, the film is similar to Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, though the filmmaker has compressed his footage here, editing The Rest down to 79 minutes’ worth of tactile physical gestures that bring home the reality of the refugees’ lives, divorcing the topic of platitude. We see refugees burning plastic water bottles to start a fire for warmth, people cradling a cat deep into their chest, and, most wrenchingly, Ai Weiwei captures a government destroying a shanty village with a bulldozer, a sequence the filmmaker shoots with a matter-of-factness that’s unflinching and unforgettably moving. Most importantly, Ai Weiwei reminds us of a harsh reality: Most of the refugees merely want to return to their war-torn countries, willing to risk death over the abuse and contempt that awaits them throughout the rest of the world.

Because of the auteur theory, people have an image of films as springing from a maestro director’s head, when they’re really works of communal endeavor. Catherine Hébert’s Ziva Postec reminds us of this fact, following the primary editor of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as she goes antiquing and recollects the six years she spent culling hundreds of hours of footage into a nearly 10-hour opus that would help define the world’s grasp of the Holocaust. A few startling details emerge. Shoah’s most important formal gambit—the contrast of the aural interviews with filmed footage of Holocaust sites as they looked at the time of the film’s production—didn’t crystallize until years into the post-production process. Also, Postec tells us how she remixed the interviews, adding space between sentences so that dense descriptions of atrocity would attain a musical cadence that would help viewers understand the stories. Hébert eventually connects Postec’s astonishing accomplishment with the editor’s own conflict over her Jewish and Israeli roots, and Ziva Postec becomes a testament of a woman facing her culture’s demons and arising out the mess somewhat cleansed. One senses that this sort of reconciliation—of the demons of the past with the yearnings of the future—is what ultimately drives the JFF at large. Such a bazaar of art allows us to give voice to anxieties and exaltations that are normally thought to be, well, complicated.

The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 25—August 4.

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