I was able to preview six of the eighteen films in this year’s edition of Film Comment Selects (running at Lincoln Center from Feburary 14th—27th), only two of which I’d recommend without hesitation as must-sees—more on those in a moment. Of the films I’m sorry to have missed and might recommend as blind views: James Benning’s 13 Lakes and Ten Skies seem promising in the extended-take ways of Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu; Ed Gonzalez’s praise of Jonnie To’s Exiled makes me regret I skipped out on a long-advance press screening a few months back; and Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth appears to be the most buzzed-about entry, whether for better or for worse (read Reverse Shot’s take on it here). Fernando F. Croce has pertinent insights into Robert Aldrich’s director’s cut-revived Twilight’s Last Gleaming in Slant Magazine’s coverage of the festival (to which I’ve also contributed a few capsules), and I’d think the mere mention of names like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Aki Kaurismäki, and Marco Bellocchio would create their own spell outside of anything I might incant. Some notes, then, on films scandalous, salacious, sheepish and, well, shitty.
No surprise to read that Eric Rohmer was an early patron of the French filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau. Both Secret Things (2002) and the Film Comment Selects opening night offering Exterminating Angels suggest searching Rohmer talkfests by way of Ken Russell’s cinema absurda—if he’s not as structurally perfect as the former, he’s a good deal more serious than the latter (the beauties of Brisseau’s movies lie in their defiantly messy imperfections: pretty poison all the way).
A stimulating hard-core erotica laced with a thick castor oil-scented dose of Catholic moralism (a belief that, for all our transgressions, the chickens must eventually come home to roost), Exterminating Angels is based in part on an actual sexual harassment case that Brisseau went through. It’s a confessional on one level, but Brisseau doesn’t allow his point of view to dominate the proceedings. Perspectives shift as fluidly as the sexual preferences of the performers—Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), Julie (Lise Bellynck), and Stéphanie (Marie Allan)—whom writer/director François (Frédéric Van Den Driessche) hires for his latest picture, a vaguely sketched-out, highly sensual inquiry into the human condition (quintessentially, and satirically, le Francais in its aims toward an elusive, impossible epiphany).
Brisseau’s not above kidding his own pretensions: the sense of fatalism and futility in Exterminating Angels, taking the literal form of two otherworldly apparitions (Raphaële Godin & Margaret Zenou), attests to the general absurdity of cinema trying to capture life in a squared-off bottle, even as it allows for the intuitive usage of several well-worn tricks of the trade (the near-subliminal flash of a camera shutter, turned off/on in quick succession, is put to particularly profound effect here). More striking, Brisseau’s sex scenes are truly transgressive, defiantly straight in their sole focus on female bodies, but never to the point of dishonesty (place them on hallowed ground with the efforts, in varied radical registers, of Steven Spielberg and Carlos Reygadas).
François’s leering affect (always treading a thin moral line between too much and not enough) is as much ours as it is Brisseau’s. His is a quixotic quest (“am I tilting at windmills?” he ponders at one point) in which we are willing participants, not so much implicated as inducted into his perspective. In this world, the pleasures of sex (especially apparent in a brilliantly sustained masturbation sequence, which moves rhythmically from public places to private spaces) are inseparable from the consequences, and when they hit, they hit hard. Crossing a line, for François, is not merely a physical contravention, but a spiritual one. His punishment: to live with the knowledge of what he has done, knowing that his transgressions can never be fully accounted for on this mortal coil.
It would be kind to describe Valeska Grisebach’s Longing as an exercise. Had this German tale of small-town infidelity (brandishing its “power-of-storytelling” thesis on its sleeve like the latest in designer cufflinks) bore the name of Haneke, I might better work up my furor against it. As is, the film is a competently observed and beautifully performed (by Andreas Müller, Ilka Welz, and Anett Dornbusch) relationship drama crammed in between bookend sequences that do irreparable harm to the whole (the final playground-set summation is a head-slapping doozy that effectively cheapens everything that comes before). Grisebach has an honest enough eye for setting—the film’s locale and its many faces (both narrative central and peripheral) feel lived in and experienced in ways that should not be dismissed. I hold out hope that she’ll drop the intellectual pretenses next time around and trust in her clearly soulful eye to carry the day.
Notwithstanding a memorable use of the Taipei escalator that features in Tsai Ming-liang’s masterpiece The River, Lin Tay-jou’s three-part video Bardo: The Lamentation of the Dying Creatures is a literalist’s portrait of apocalypse. The main problem is the homogenized texture of the video, which lends a thudding sameness to each and every one of Lin’s visions, adapted from texts Buddhist, bibilical, and otherwise. The work’s Chinese title (Chui-si Zao-wu Ai-ge), taken from a Middle Ages text, gives it its lengthy subheading, while the English title literally translates as “between two things”, implying a spiritual gray area that unfortunately comes off, on screen, as a half-formed, amateurish mish-mash. Found and/or manipulated footage of ducks wallowing in blood, juxtaposed with the birth of a baby (apparently Lin’s own child) make for the most potent images of the piece, while the second part—which follows the afterlife wanderings of a newly deceased student radical—has a narcotic sense of rhythm that offsets its at times risible visualizations.
Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet’s reported final collaboration, These Encounters of Theirs, did next to nothing for me, though it’s probably my fault for beginning at the end (this is, to appropriately paraphrase, my first encounter with their considerable body of work). Standing on the outside looking in, I discern something quite meaningful in the visual/structural rigor of this 68-minute adaptation of mock-classical dialogues by the Communist philosopher Cesare Pavese, even as I find its outdoor still-life performances impenetrable (two Italian actors per scene, declaiming the gods-descended-to-earth dialogues in ways uncomfortably, though perhaps intentionally, close to parody) and its ultimate meanings frustratingly elusive. “Subjects for Further Research” as Andrew Sarris might say—I eagerly await the work that will confirm Straub/Huillet’s greatness and look forward to re-evaluating These Encounters of Theirs in the retrospect of this hoped-for illumination.
An undisputed highlight of the Film Comment Selects series, Mamoru Oshii’s Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters is best described as an anime essay film—think Chris Marker adapting the entirety of the Akira manga via CGI puppet-theater cutouts. An omniscient narrator (who may or may not represent Oshii himself) tells the disparate tales of the Fast Food Grifters, mystery-shrouded wanderers who use superior rhetorical skills/actions to con a free meal at the soba stands and hamburger joints littering post-war Japan. That’s the jumping off point for an extended discourse on the Land of the Rising Sun’s ever-mutating cultural landscape where Western encroachment foretells of a repressive cultural amnesia (Oshii dedicates one mournful section to the extermination, pre-1964 Olympics, of Japan’s stray dog population; in another, a character’s every mention of “Disneyland” is drowned out by a censorious soundtrack bleep).
Tachigui is heady stuff, equal parts masterpiece and con job, consistently leavened by Oshii and anime’s tendencies toward the absurd. The characters bear names such as Foxy Croquette O-Gin, Cold Badger Masa, and Frankfurter Tasu, and not a minute goes by without some cortex-rupturing visual (a personal favorite: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex director Kenji Kamiyama, as a burger stand fry cook, flailing his arms about in desperation while trying to satiate the nose-ringed revolutionary Hamburger Tetsu), ensuring one will leave, at film’s end, with a splitting, if not entirely displeasing headache. Between this and his mesmeric whatsit Innocence, Oshii might be deemed the fast food grifter par excellence.
In Black Book—the Film Comment Selects closing night screening—when the Jewish double agent Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), her cover irretrievably blown, is drenched head-to-toe by the largest vat of lumpy, milk chocolate-tinted shit this side of Pasolini’s Salò, one might be surprised at how, well, safe it all feels. This is not something one expects or hopes for from Paul Verhoeven, whose best films are triumphs of instinct over intellect, consistently flirting, and quite often fucking, with the dark side of life. Expectations can be dangerous and damaging, but I feel confident saying that Verhoeven is better than this big-budget prestige picture—his first Dutch film since The Fourth Man, done in the grand-’n’-bland style of a creaky Hollywood war epic. It’s most potent and telling image: the brunette Rachel bleach-blonding her pubic hair, becoming something she’s not. Black Book has similar golden dreams, though to no subversive or lasting purpose. One longs for Nomi Malone to enliven the proceedings with her ketchup bottle of doom.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications. Click here for the full Film Comment Selects schedule.