At most festivals, such curious objects as João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist or Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge would likely remain the exception rather than the rule, but then Locarno isn’t most festivals. As the competition moved into its second half, two equally strange, equally challenging films continued the tradition of the festival’s opening days. The starting point for Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature, By the Time It Gets Dark, is the 1976 massacre carried out by police on protestors at a Bangkok university. One of the film’s opening scenes restages this shattering event while adding an extra representational layer: Not only are the prostrate students shown moaning and shuddering before their tormenters, but also flashed on the screen are grainy black-and-white photographs that freeze their anguished gestures in time.
With the differences in how images capture the past thus established from the outset, the action shifts to a country abode, where a director (Visra Vichit-Vadakan) prepares her next film by conducting interviews with a writer (Rassami Paoluengtong) who survived the massacre, though a waitress (Atchara Suwan) who serves them ventures that the two women might be better off switching roles. There are flashbacks to the writer’s experiences, intermingled with talk of history, mushrooms, and frustrated telekinesis, before a brief montage that splices together a sequence from a Méliés film, blooming mold, and a tropical bird ushers in something else entirely.
From here on out, nothing in the film is stable, as its genre, visual style, narrative, even its very images, are apt to shift without warning: a documentary-like sequence showing tobacco production gives way to the making of a garish music video; an airy portrait of the singer’s (Arak Amornsupasiri) everyday life is interrupted by a slightly chintzier version of the writer and director’s earlier meeting; and yet another director starts color grading sections of the film as both she and the audience look on, before glitches eventually tear its frames apart.
The only tangible link between these glittering narrative shards is the figure of the waitress, who pops up toiling away in the background of almost every new setting, an ordinary figure entrusted with gluing together an extraordinary film. Although By the Time It Gets Dark‘s perpetual transitions could easily feel jarring, Suwichakornpong handles them so intuitively that they unfold with rhythmic finesse, while the film’s ever-shifting form is actually the perfect vehicle for exploring her subject matter. In a country where massacres don’t enter the history books and past and present remain locked in a stagnant embrace, perhaps a filmmaker’s only possible response is to calmly sift through all the many ways of depicting the status quo before realizing that none of them are truly adequate. For all cinema’s beautiful manifestations, it can never quite capture history’s unruly backward flow.
The Dreamed Path is equally interested in exploring reality via fragmentation, even if German director Angela Schanelec’s slivers of human experience are at once more homogeneous and more abstract. The film’s opening scene provides an uncharacteristic flicker of levity, as a young couple, Theres (Miriam Jakob) and Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson), start busking in front of a Greek tourist attraction, giving a droll rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” as the hat in front of them jingles with coins. It’s 1984 and a nearby demonstration is debating the pros and cons of Greece’s EU membership, before the outside world recedes from view when Kenneth receives word that his mother has been injured in an accident.
The lovers return to Theres’s native Germany, before Kenneth moves on to England to complete the wrenching task of supporting his parents. Theres gets a teaching job in Berlin and the film moves suddenly and imperceptibly to the German capital in the present, now following an actress (Maren Eggert) in the throes of leaving her partner (Phil Hayes). While Kenneth and Theres’s actions are already presented in fragments that barely come together to form a plot, the move into the present brings with it an even greater degree of abstraction. A film is shot, books are examined or packed up, images of the tropics rear their head, children kick balls or swim together, and people move through space like impassive sleepwalkers, as if life were composed of the disparate stages of an inscrutable dream.
In the absence of obvious cause and effect and anything more than the most fleeting of connections between its two sets of characters, The Dreamed Path relies instead on a system of repeating gestures to give it cohesion: bags and suitcases being packed and unpacked, hands exchanging objects or money, feet stationary or on uncertain terrain, bodies passing through doorways or lying in forlorn repose, their perversely emotional effect amplified by the tight Academy-ratio frame. If there are distinct echoes of Robert Bresson in Schanelec’s approach, none of her character’s gestures bring them transcendence, which isn’t to say that her worldview is without hope. While The Dreamed Path depicts existence as quiet, desperate stasis, untouched by the repercussions of relationships, politics, or even time itself, solace lies in the fact that children are still capable of moving and being moved. Schanelec has never enjoyed the same attention of many others awkwardly subsumed under the banner of the Berlin School, a fact which this bracing new work will hopefully change. To tie her austere, yet deeply felt vision to a particular trend is anyway a denial of its pure singularity.