One city, one day. That Aristotelian unity is an alluring structure for a film. Following a character’s journey through a city over the course of a day is a plot progression that’s popular and visible enough to mark the boundaries of a kind of subgenre defined by films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Before Sunrise. There are built-in narrative advantages and expectations to the form, and here are three case studies from this year’s AFI Fest that elucidate them.
For one, the form reflects the routine progression of our lives and thus maintains a strong narrative cohesion even in the absence of driving action. If nothing is solved and no loose ends are tied (which in one day tends to be the case unless that one day involves international terrorists of some kind), it feels right to end the story because the day is up. Hong Sang-soo plays with that routine progression in The Day He Arrives, in which a film director, Seong-jun (Yu Jun-sang), arrives in Seoul to visit a old friend and goes through some of the motions that are common when revisiting a city: running into familiar faces on the street, meeting people in restaurants, drinking a lot, breaking down in tears in front of his ex-girlfriend—you know, the usual.
But then night snaps to day and Seong-jun is back on the street again, running into the same people and drinking at the same bars; the events that play out aren’t identical but are similar enough to provoke resonance to what’s come before. Hong’s elliptical style gives us scenes that play out without being fully contextualized, and he lets Seong-jun’s fragmented internal monologue complicate the equation. Are we watching the same day play out in slightly different ways, or is Seong-jun’s life that much of a routine, the patterns of his behavior so rote, that even the different days of a trip all blend together into an undifferentiated stream?
Long conversations play out in wide compositions, letting us investigate the details of the dynamic between Seong-jun, his colleagues and his friends; scenes become a puzzle in unearthing character psychology. But Hong isn’t afraid to use the zoom to guide our gaze in a self-conscious way. After all, it’s a self-conscious movie; like many of his other projects it’s a film about filmmakers. But the whole thing avoids plunging into self-indulgence by remaining relentlessly playful throughout and harboring no illusions about the (lack of) seriousness in Seong-jun’s internal crises. Intriguing, yes; serious, not so much. Hong is setting up a game and inviting us to play.
The day-in-a-city structure is also well-suited to study characters that are displaced from their routine and interact with the city in entirely different ways; those characters may be lost and adrift internally, but the pathways of the city and the hours of the day are there to anchor them. In The Silver Cliff, Brazilian dentist Violeta (Alessandra Negrini) is certainly displaced from her routine when she receives a voicemail from her husband that he’s leaving for Porto Alegre and that he’s not coming back. She resolves to follow him, but the next available flight isn’t until the morning; in the meantime she wanders the streets of Rio in the grips of something resembling a fugue state.
Writer-director Karim Aïnouz and screenwriter Beatriz Bracher are able to find the rhythm of Rio de Janeiro and proceed to set Violeta against it. In the bustling crowds of the day she’s utterly alone, and in the nighttime, when the city is winding down, she’s still going. All it takes is one grand shock to knock her out of sync; after hearing that voicemail she’s in the city but not of it.
The film also shows how the city becomes a mirror for Violeta’s psychology; Negrini gives a wonderfully subdued portrayal of a woman in crisis but reluctant to show it. The way that crisis comes out is in how she clashes with the city: in its nightclubs, on its streets, on its endless stretch of beaches. The film isn’t particularly concerned with notions of developing an arc or resolving a crisis; it lives and breathes moment by moment. Violeta cuts loose, contemplates her life, makes a connection—and before we know it, the sun’s back up.
Oslo, August 31st makes its day and city quite explicit—it’s right in the title. Anders Danielsen Lie, who starred in writer-director Joachim Trier’s first feature Reprise, returns for Trier’s second as Anders, a thirtysomething who’s on temporary leave from a drug rehab program to interview for a job in the city. But even the sheer fact of being back in Oslo pulls on all the threads of Anders’s history; in reaching out to old friends and family, the trajectory of his life becomes clearer and clearer to us.
Trier co-wrote the script with Eskil Vogt, his collaborator on Reprise, and while this film isn’t a sequel, it’s a follow-up in spirit. Trier’s first film followed the ambitions of young writers and was energized by the notions of endless possibilities. Oslo also centers on a writer, slightly older and perhaps not too much wiser but clearly aware that most of those possibilities no longer exist; his past is marked and his future is circumscribed. It’s a fact made abundantly clear at his interview when he’s asked to explain the gaping chasm in his resume.
A melancholy helplessness washes over the entire film; early on Anders attempts to commit suicide, which if we’ve grasped the film’s structure quickly enough, we know will fail simply because it’s at the beginning of the film, the beginning of the day. But what about the end? Are Anders’s attempts to reach out to the people in his life a desperate quest to find something to hold onto, or are they perfunctory motions he’s going through before the inevitable conclusion? Lie embodies Anders with such depth; he plays in the space between. We may look on from the outside and see a senseless sadness about Anders, but Lie convinces us that there’s more there, while leaving open the possibility that it may not be enough.
One of the film’s centerpiece scenes is nothing explosive or overly dramatic; it’s a brief stopover with Anders in a café, overhearing the conversations around him and people-watching the pedestrians passing by. In these moments of contemplation we see Anders as he silently imagines the course of these people’s lives, brief glimpses of what happens to them after they drift out of sight. The scene is a masterful echo of the way Trier played with the qualities of the subjunctive mood in his previous film; he lets us witness things that may be the verge of happening. It also shows us Anders finding the pulse of Oslo—the patterns and routines of these people’s lives—and his attempts to fall back into sync with that pulse. But the dark thought gnawing at him is the one the film haunts us with, all the way through to the last frame: What if you can never find that pulse again? What else is there?
AFI Fest ran from November 3—10. For more information, click here.