On Friday morning, three Arab gunmen killed two Druze police officers in Old Jerusalem. My phone thrummed with texts from friends asking if I was okay. Several hours after the shooting, people sit comfortably in an air-conditioned theater watching Colin Farrell seduce Elle Fanning. The next day, I took an Instagram at Mount Temple, as if nothing were awry. It’s a weird sensation, how fugacious acts of violence seem here, in a city that’s been destroyed and rebuilt so many times by so many kings and religions. The airline, El Al, is the only commercial airline in the world to have their planes equipped with missiles. That, to me, is more incredible than anything on the movie screen.
A 15-minute walk away others are having profound ontological experiences, kissing the floor of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, touching the rock where Jesus allegedly died, or putting their hands to the Wailing Wall (though the woman’s side of the wall is closed-off currently). Several days after I left, metal detectors were installed at Temple Mount, spurring riots in the streets, and an Israeli guard shot and killed a Jordanian attacker near the embassy in Amman, causing a diplomatic standoff. But maybe movies are their own profound ontological experience? Maybe cinema is a sort of religion?
The film I was most often asked about, even after the shootings, was The Beguiled, arguably the frontrunner in the international competition. Though it’s been playing stateside for two weeks and premiered at Cannes in May, Coppola’s film was the first to have a sell-out screening at Jerusalem. From my interactions with paying, non-American festivalgoers, as well as critics and journalists from countries east of France, it seems to have garnered the most attention despite (or maybe because of?) its congenitally American subject matter. The journalists from Cyprus, Croatia, and Hong Kong hadn’t seen it yet, and were frustrated that they couldn’t get into the screening.
Coppola’s adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil (though it feels at times more like a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film) has been heralded as an epiphanic work by her apostles and derided as a stilted retreading by her detractors. The truth is probably somewhere nearer the middle. With her usual immaculate compositions, simmering undercurrent of disquietude, and aural fixations (the nervous score is performed by the French pop outfit Phoenix, whose lead singer, Thomas Mars, is married to the director), Coppola makes a convincing argument that she’s one of America’s most aesthetically consistent auteurs, though not necessarily one its greats.
Union soldier John McBurney (Farrell) is taken in by a coterie of curious young girls residing at a Virginia girl’s school, whose sexually repressed headmistress (Nicole Kidman, who naturally exudes sensuality with every look and breath) develops a lusty fascination with McB. She watches him with a stiletto stare and unspoken thirst bubbling just beneath her words. The school, enfolded by an ever-present fog, has a hermetic quality, a place unperturbed by the world outside, a quality shared by the film itself. Siegel’s version, a liminal and amorous work made by a filmmaker known for his genre craftsmanship and machismo, has been described by pretty much everyone as “a hothouse.” In this hothouse, so fertile and venereal, nasty urges grow from natural desires. McB plants his seed, so to speak, and from this seed blossoms his own agonizing demise. Siegel’s film is claustrophobic; Coppola’s is merely airless. The film feels somehow tepid and overly manicured, as abstemious as the repressed female characters at its core. It feels fussed over like a lock of hair combed into submission.
In the original, Clint Eastwood, tall and lean, a proverbial Man’s Man with an innately sleazy quality and a propensity for volatility and violence, epitomizes the ideal leading man of the early ’70s. He’s square-jawed and mutton-chopped, chewing on words until he can spit them out all mangled and wet. His hyper-masculine braggadocio is all in service of his cock. In Coppola’s version, Farrell is too…fragile? Damaged? Sympathetic? Eastwood’s McB didn’t necessarily deserve the barbarities inflicted on him, even if he did kill that little girl’s pet turtle, but he made you want him to hurt.
Comparing two films is a potentially lazy form of criticism, but it feels necessary here, especially since many of the critics I talked with had never heard of, let alone seen, Siegel’s film, which is, frankly, astonishing to me. But even here, I’m reminded not only of cultural differences affecting how one views a film, but also how and if one can literally view a film. Siegel, hereditarily American, doesn’t translate as well as Coppola, whose Antonioni-inspired existential elegance apparently register better.
The top international prize ended up going to Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone, one of three films the Korean auteur directed this year. (Yourself and Yours, which premiered last year, also played the fest.) Hong is, perhaps more than any other current filmmaker, someone whose films work best if you’ve seen his other films, an annoying but worthwhile prerequisite. Each release feels like a new chapter in a lifelong personal essay, almost Proustian in their ruminations on memory, on associations. Hong runs the risk of exhausting moviegoers with his indomitable pace, and his fans, who sometimes seem like the arthouse equivalent to Christopher Nolan fanboys, can, in their obnoxious yammering, distract from the work on the screen. But for those keeping up, On the Beach at Night Alone is one of the best cinematic experiences of the year.
Kim Min-hee, Hong’s muse and current romantic partner (their affair caused a major scandal in South Korea, where adultery was illegal until 2015), plays an actress who has an affair that throws her life into chaos. The film draws, and also veers, from Hong and Kim’s affair, a kind of postmodern play on viewer expectations. As with her previous and forthcoming roles in Hong’s films, she extrapolates the most minute of emotions from the familiar diegesis that’s the recurring theme of Hong’s oeuvre, that cloying sense of loneliness and disappointment. The film is, thematically and aesthetically, a slight departure for Hong, while still feeling unequivocally like a Hong film; he loves the mundane social situation that slowly devolves into emotional chaos, like a more loquacious and realistic Buñuel, and emotional chaos certainly reigns here, even if it’s surprisingly sober.
Though the film is divided into sections, Hong’s adoration for the bifurcation of repetition and oafish male embarrassment, both central to 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then, are less pronounced, and his beloved zooms are sometimes eschewed in favor of discrete distance. Hong has expressed admiration for Paul Cézanne, who delineated human interactions into simple compositions full of slight but significant details. Hong does something similar. His characters sit and make small talk which, imbued by saki, gradually becomes something more revealing, something unsweetened. There’s a 10-minute long-take here that’s ostensibly simple, but in its unobtrusiveness it allows characters to spill their feelings, unfiltered, uncouth, and unapologetic. In the film’s only major moment of male perspective, Hong’s pseudo-surrogate confesses that he never got over the dissolution of their relationship, while the real Hong hangs back and watches. The scene, the film, becomes so personal, its progenitor can’t even articulate himself.
The Whitman poem from which Hong’s film takes its name is almost biblical in scope, with its astronomical, cosmic imagery ultimately reflecting something intimate. It’s trying to give name to that which has none: “Something there is more immortal even than the stars…Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter/Longer than sun or any revolving satellite/Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.” The imperfect transcendentalism of Hong, a lackadaisical variant of Whitman’s meditations, is about finding clarity amid personal turmoil, usually with the aid of alcohol and cigarettes, though sometimes coffee. Hong knows there’s a sapiential aspect to fiction, to the art of storytelling, the way it elucidates human nature. Hong’s characters tell stories to understand their history, even if those stories eventually rewrite history (see the nebulous depiction of time in Right Now, Wrong Then).
This is how it is in Jerusalem, a cinematic-looking city rife with fictions and contradictions. It’s an omnium gatherum, its residents and transients all contributing to this fabled idea of Jerusalem, to a myth manifest as a modern city. There’s an air of spectacle suffusing it, a character thousands of years in the making. The Tower of David, which is neither a tower nor a location ever visited by David, is one of the most popular tourist attractions, and acts as a fitting emblem. It looms in Old Jersualem like a legend, but, as with much of the city, the story enfolding it holds more power than the humdrum reality. No one cares if the Tower is erroneously named, if Jesus really died where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands or, as Protestants believe, further East, at the Garden Tomb. The way the Sam Spiegel school preaches the importance of story, Jerusalem loves a good yarn. Everyone here, from the taxi driver to the members of the press to the tour guide, is a raconteur, spinning tales, working in unintentional tandem to write the never-ending narrative of the city. Storytelling isn’t restricted to the film festival. It seeps into the culture. It’s a vivacious and proud component that, like Whitman’s unnamed immortal, will last as long as the stars. As the tour guide said, “This is Jerusalem: Story over history.”
The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 13—23.