The first days of the Locarno Film Festival were dominated by a heat so intense that it took great effort to focus on the challenging cinema for which the Swiss festival is renowned and not just on staying hydrated and fleeing to the next air-conditioned space. But as the warmth receded and proper concentration returned, several titles that screened on the opening weekend emerged from the fug as some of the most intriguing films of the year.
Unlike in Switzerland, the sweltering heat of the Dominican Republic inspires fervor, even hysteria—as in Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias’s Cocote, which opened the festival’s experimentally minded Signs of Life section, which this year became a competitive section for the first time and opened its doors to films of all lengths. Much like the filmmaker’s Santa Teresa and Other Stories, a very loose adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Cocote proceeds by inserting enough flights of fancy into an established narrative that its through line often becomes thrillingly blurred. While this film’s plot doesn’t draw on any preexisting material, it does feel broadly archetypical, telling the story of how Alberto (Vicente Santos), a gardener working at a wealthy estate in Santo Domingo, returns to his home village following the death of his father at the hands of a local bigwig. Alberto’s smart attire and newfound respectability mark him as a prodigal son for his mother and sisters, who expect him both to take part in a nine-day burial ritual and avenge his father, neither of which are in keeping with his sense of urban rationality and poise.
Yet even before the multi-stage ritual begins and Alberto is pulled into the family feud, Carlo de los Santos Arias has already inserted all sorts of digressions and impressionistic flourishes into the proceedings: shots of billowing smoke in Santo Domingo, an anecdote in voiceover about Diogenes, a TV report about a rooster whose miraculous crow is apparently directed at the Lord himself. Still, the plot’s linear trajectory serves to keep any confusion at bay. A similarly patchwork approach is in evidence in terms of form, as Cocote shifts restlessly and seamlessly back and forth between film stocks of differing degrees of grain, between color and black and white, between static shots and moving ones, between agitated handheld camerawork and gliding, wonderfully graceful 360-degree pans. The resultant sense of restlessness neatly dovetails with the boundless energy of the burial ritual, which speaks to a country’s irrepressible urge to give free rein to emotion, an urge to which Alberto too eventually submits, and with suitably violent results.
Given that the idea behind the Signs of Life section is to explore “film’s frontier territories,” it seemed strange that Prototype, the first feature-length work by Texan-born, Toronto-based filmmaker and critic Blake Williams, screened at the vaguely anonymous Fuori Concorso section; if anything, this deeply sensual, almost unclassifiable 3D work perfectly illustrates what can be achieved when familiar ground is left behind, whether in terms of narrative or even basic context. Indeed, the level of context included within Prototype itself is about on a level with that provided by the film’s enigmatic synopsis, which states that, “as a major storm strikes Texas in September 1900, a mysterious televisual device is built and tested.” The opening sequence of old photographs of wrecked houses thus presumably shows the Lone Star state in the aftermath of a hurricane, while the roaring, immersive soundscape that accompanies the bulk of the film could easily be the noise generated by the storm, even if it equally seems to be soundtracking the ravishing 360-degree shot of a wave that follows the photographs, a rotating wash of blues, whites, and blacks that sweep the viewer along with them.
The roar hardly lets up as different views of some antiquated-looking televisual device subsequently appear, its milky-colored screens showing an unceasing flow of fuzzy images of trees and statues, animals and architectures, often in parallel, before the film finally enters one of the them and the images themselves begin to progressively break up into fragments, forms, and glitches. Watching Prototype is akin to swimming through some sort of mysterious visual archive, the ripples caused by one’s movements growing bigger and bigger until its holdings start disintegrating, which isn’t to say one doesn’t eventually reach the other side. Regardless of what concrete meaning can be attached to this paradoxically soothing swim, there was no better way to wash off the heat and float away to cinema’s outer limits.
Over in the main competition, Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté returned to Locarno with A Skin So Soft, a study of six male bodybuilders in provincial Canada. Throughout, the film’s blurring of the boundary between reality and invention is as gentle as Côté’s treatment of his subject. It’s easy to imagine the sort of work that would seek to psychologize these men’s desire to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of physical perfection or try and formulate some sort of predictable hypothesis about masculinity and cultural pressures, but Côté’s interest luckily lies elsewhere, namely the actual process by which such bodies are forged and maintained. The focus is thus on regimes of exercise and diet, preparations for photo shoots and competitions, and the brief gaps between these all-consuming activities, with each individual piece of these six daily routines filmed with a sense of quiet calm that finds the right balance between tenderness and detachment. But the leading role is ultimately taken by these men’s bodies, over which the camera lingers again and again, muscles being clenched, catalogued, massaged, scraped, sprayed, contained by a skin that can barely seem to hold them.
For while at least, there’s a nagging feeling that the virtues of Côté’s film lie more in what it doesn’t do than what it does, as all the muted observation doesn’t initially appear to be leading anywhere in particular. But the film’s closing stages quickly dispel this impression, when the six protagonists head off together on a rural retreat whose precise function, if any, remains opaque. They wander topless through the countryside, sunbathe together, inspect each other’s bodies, and sit around a campfire, and all without pouring out their hearts. A new mood is established that hovers somewhere between the utopian, the mildly homoerotic, and the mysterious, at which point it becomes clear just how much Côté is actually directing things, a realization that suddenly also applies to everything that’s come before this point. Is A Skin So Soft thus a portrait of “real life” as a bodybuilder or a subtly idealized version of the same? The answer lies at some indeterminate point in between.
Amid all these intriguing works, it was another Locarno veteran who delivered the festival’s highlight thus far: Milla, the second feature by French director Valérie Massadian. While Nana, which won the prize at Locarno for best first feature back in 2011, depicted just a few days in the life of its titular protagonist, Milla studies its own central character of the same name over a period of years. To begin with, 17-year-old Milla (Severine Jonckeere) seems to be in a happy relationship with her boyfriend, Leo (Luc Chessel), even if he occasionally gets aggravated by her joking around. They break into a house together by the English Channel and set up home; he starts working on a ship just as Milla’s stomach begins to swell. Time passes, Leo is no longer there, Milla finds a job at a hotel, and soon she has a son, Ethan (Ethan Jonckeere). Regardless of where Milla currently finds herself, the film maintains the same persistent interest in the spaces around her, placing a subtle focus on the patterns and hues of walls and furnishings, the small shifts in brightness that can entirely change the atmosphere of a room, or the sound of the wind whipping across the sea outside—the idea being to bring the viewer into ever greater sync with how Milla herself experiences her surroundings.
While the above plot points could easily be put together to form a conventional melodrama, Milla deemphasizes them to such an extent that they hardly stand out from the series of beautifully observed fragments of the everyday that make up the film. In Massadian’s hands, the minor and the major are one and the same; there’s no difference between the end of Milla’s relationship and the waves hitting the harbor wall or the arrival of her son and the play of lights and colors across a bedroom. Rather than slotting into some sort of narrative arc or dramatic structure, each of these moments and the others like them are merely concerned with establishing an atmosphere of intimacy and empathy, which grows in intensity to an almost unbearable degree as the film moves toward its finale. If Milla is thus an exquisite tragedy, its sadness isn’t derived from any one momentous event or turning point, but instead from all the tiny things that happen together and are each too small to grasp—those things whose sum is a life, whose sum is life itself.
The Locarno Film Festival runs from August 2—12.