As I was wrapping up my portion of our AFI Fest coverage, I noted a few other themes of note running through the festival’s programming. A number of films hover in the realm of science fiction; they use the container of a world different than our own to provoke insight into character, to contemplate the trajectory of society, or perhaps just to deploy some really mind-blowing imagery.
French director Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s Carré Blanc constructs a dystopia where people eating the processed corpses of other people isn’t a shocking twist ending. It’s merely our first bleak glimpse into a society utterly mired in nihilism, one where the population has to be propagandized into having children and measures have to be taken against mass suicide. In that space between life and death lies Philippe (Sami Bouajila). As a young traumatized orphan he’s brutalized by the system; as an adult he’s a perfectly efficient bureaucratic cog of that system, carrying out absurd evaluations on his subordinates where they always prove lacking.
Leonetti creates a world via omission, where the empty cityscapes speak volumes and the characters’ lack of affect reflects the deadening automatism of a society that professes to care about new life but apparently only as fodder for the meat grinder. Philippe’s relationship with his wife, Marie (Julie Gayet), is the fulcrum of the film; whereas she once saved his life by thwarting his suicide attempt when they were kids, as an adult Philippe seems at a loss to prevent her own interminable slouching towards oblivion. Philippe’s character development may be straightforward, but Bouajila embodies an icy, guarded demeanor that coheres quite well with the film’s evocative compositions—both work together to convey the power of negative space, both visually and emotionally.
Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow is the aforementioned “mind-blowing imagery” film, a bizarre Reagan-era clash of wills between psychically-gifted Elena (Eva Allan) and Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), her captor and tormentor at the Arboria Institute. He’s studying her, hoping to get insight and control over her powers; she’s seeking for a way to escape—but that plot is almost irrelevant in light of the power of the film’s imagery. The promotional video-style opening immediately plunges us into a full-on ’70s sci-fi aesthetic, Logan’s Run by way of THX-1138. But that’s only the starting point before the film explodes into a torrent of psychedelic images and hypnotic dilation of time, where at one point the film frame appears to literally disintegrate in front of our eyes.
Trying to get a handle on the film’s avant-garde predilections is a bit like trying to get a handle on madness; one simple shot showing Elena crossing a hallway seems to stretch on for minutes, but it’s captivating by the sheer force of its disconnect as a geometric motion study. In fact, it’s almost anticlimactic when Cosmatos snaps the film back into some semblance of reality to push along Barry and Elena’s cat-and-mouse game. In this visual maelstrom, Rogers as Barry is captivating in the way he positively oozes sinister inhumanity; in his turtlenecks and polyester suits, he’s like an evil Carl Sagan.
Where Carré Blanc carved its future society out of negative space and absence, Target builds it up out of extravagance and opulence. Directed by Alexander Zeldovich, the film is unabashed about its appropriation—after all, it’s a nearly three-hour sci-fi story about people venturing into the Russian wilderness to visit a place with special powers, and its characters are cribbed from the spirit of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, if not the letter. In a 2020s Moscow where the rich have become even richer, the logical extrapolation is for wealthy resources minister, Victor (Maksim Sukhanov), and his close circle of friends to seek the secrets of eternal life at an abandoned astrophysics facility—though, of course, those secrets come at a price. The running time, though a bit oppressive, is necessary to chart the film’s course from straightforward sci-fi to grand melodrama to its final act where, mirroring the distorted and disintegrating consciousness of its characters, the film undergoes a kind of psychotic break, a meltdown of reality that actively quotes the work of Truffaut and Buñuel.
The bulk of the story is devoted to a love triangle between Victor, his wife, and a dashing horse jockey/customs agent, but that’s not where the movie finds its full potential. That’s located when it starts to interrogate more fundamental things, as in during a madcap sequence at a political commentary/cooking show, or when the film’s secondary characters, another pair of lovers, question how to actually deal with the consequences of eternal life. In those moments, Zeldovich taps into science fiction in the truest sense of the genre: confronting the consequences of future society and investigating the enigmas at the heart of human existence.
Moving onto other themes, such as the panoply of threats and dilemmas revolving around children: Austrian director Markus Schleinzer’s first feature, Michael, is a look at the power dynamics of abuse, providing witness to the titular character (Michael Fuith) and the control he maintains over his victim Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), a 10-year-old boy he keeps locked up in a vault in his basement. It’s a chilling and detached film, one that’s clinical in its gaze; we know the brutality and horror Michael is inflicting, but Schleinzer only gives us glimpses of its hazy edges, of the before-and-after logistics: Michael restocking the vault’s food supplies, or washing up after the deed is done. The camera lingers silently on a closed door and Schelinzer invites us to fill in the blanks.
Inflected by real events, the film also owes quite a bit to the work of Michael Haneke (Schleinzer cast a number of the director’s films). Beyond the similar stylistic cues, Michael inhabits a familiar space in which it captures a character that’s broken inside and radiating that brokenness outward, but the world is itself shuttered and indifferent as to render what seems obvious to us as invisible to the other characters in the film. Michael isn’t some grotesque recluse, but someone who seems to function perfectly fine in the world, and at work he’s reasonably tolerated by his colleagues. Their obliviousness is tinged with a dark irony that would be comic if it weren’t so realistic—from the street Michael’s suburban house looks the same as all the others, and we only know its secret because Schleinzer lets us.
Chilean director Francisca Fuenzalida’s Expecting is harrowing and programmatic in its own way, staying close to teenaged Natalia (María de Los Ángeles García) as she has an abortion. With the procedure being illegal in Chile, she buys a handful of black market pills and holes up in her home while her parents are away, with her boyfriend, Rodrigo (Diego Ruiz), there to support her. The story is claustrophobic and enervating in an extremely productive way, taking us through the physical and emotional wringer that accompanies the procedure. Fuenzalida achieves this by deploying a vérité subjectivity that stays close to the couple, where their own internal turmoil is expressed through the simple logistics of actually terminating the pregnancy.
The film’s misfires come when it breaks from that simplicity and ventures to melodramatize the issue, especially with the injection of musical underscore that attempts to be elegiac, but only exacerbates the out-of-step nature of those moments. But those moments are relatively few and slight in comparison to the roiling and nuanced dynamic between Natalia and Rodrigo. The film doesn’t make them easy symbols of a charged political battleground, but presents them as complex characters with a whole host of issues; the pregnancy is merely the most pressing and most visible of them. Here, Fuenzalida presents a riveting chamber drama behind the closed doors of suburbia where teenagers, perhaps prone to claim that every tiny crisis in their lives is apocalyptic, confront one that actually is.
The conflict in Israeli director Joseph Cedar’s Footnote is a bit more lighthearted, where the world of Talmudic scholarship at Hebrew University becomes a battleground in which longstanding simmering father-son resentment comes to the fore. The story itself hews to classic types: Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a Talmudic philologist whose scientific rigor and obsessive dedication to his work has received little approbation, while his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a superstar in the field. Uriel is showered with acclaim and awards for scholarship, which Eliezer, with barely hidden disdain, dismisses as the pandering of a mere “folklorist.” So when Eliezer is mistakenly informed that’s he’ll be receiving the prestigious Israel Prize, one actually intended for his son, Uriel knows that if his father discovered the truth, it would utterly devastate him.
This tension of uncovering hidden knowledge comes through in the way Cedar enlivens the material with a manic energy by transmuting the qualities of footnotes into the film. Here, we witness the “text” of the father-and-son history and then dash through a web of illuminating and explanatory background information that deepens our understanding of the situation at the same time that it complicates it. Such a strategy draws out not only the chasm between ignorance and understanding, but between past and present; an early anecdote Uriel recounts about his father in a glowing and almost hagiographic way is later revealed to be the shell around a darker truth. But most importantly, Cedar’s direction is able to balance the gentle humor of genial pokes at the academic establishment with the recognition that for those who have spent their whole lives in that establishment, who’ve constructed their whole identities around it, even the smallest things, like a tiny footnote, become imbued with grave importance.
AFI Fest ran from November 3—10. For more information, click here.