Albert Serra’s recent The Death of Louis XIV feels like a fictional cousin to Mrs. Fang, winner of the Golden Leopard at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, as Wang Bing’s latest similarly maps out the process by which the glow of a human life is dimmed. Mrs. Fang, a sixtysomething former farmer from rural southeast China, has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years. Wang visits her modest family home on two separate occasions: in 2015, when she’s already unable to speak or leave her bed and her family discusses her funeral, and a year later, in the days before her death. Throughout these visits, Wang employs his by-now familiar mode of calm, unadorned observation, moving smoothly between the conversations conducted around Mrs. Fang’s bed, forays outside the cramped home to follow discussions on the street and villagers on fishing trips, and tight close-ups of Mrs. Fang’s face on the pillow—the latter of which suffused with an intimacy so intense that it makes the surroundings disappear and time stand still for a while, despite their only making up a comparatively small part of the film.
The constant speculation on the family’s part about the state of Mrs. Fang’s condition is taken up by the viewer though the close-ups of the old woman’s face, whose minute changes in expression offer infinite opportunity for interpretation but little certainty. Nominal respite from the depth of questioning these close-ups invite is then provided by Wang’s exterior shots, quiet reminders that the world outside continues to turn, even though death is present here as well, such as in the form of a half-dead fish lying in the bottom of a boat, paralyzed by acid. As always in Wang’s work, Mrs. Fang evinces an unobtrusive structuralism and ability to distill insight from seemingly innocuous occurrences; perhaps the film’s only real innovation is that these virtues can cast their spell just as well over 90 minutes as they do over the several hours that his documentations frequently last. And while the film’s ultimate message is also not radically new, it’s typically wise. As the family’s constant conjecture gives way to silence before the end, it’s as if they themselves grasp what Wang has been getting at the entire time: You can try all you want to read the signs, but death is pure inscrutability.
The fact that Isabelle Huppert picked up the award for best actress in Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde was hardly surprising either, as the French icon draws on wonderfully subtle changes in body language and gait to show that the timid Mrs. Géquil is becoming someone or something else. But Huppert’s performance conveys a sense of purpose the film itself does not. Bozon’s pointedly loose adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novella only draws on its ample cultural associations and central theme of transformation, otherwise stripping away the original’s plot, tone, genre, setting, timeframe, and gender configuration to replace them with a set of new coordinates far more opaque than those of the original.
Mrs. Géquil is a mild-mannered, excruciatingly ineffective science teacher at a French technical college, cowed in equal measure by the foppish headmaster (Romain Duris) and her raucous students, most of whom come from non-white backgrounds and live in a nearby housing project where the merits of a getting an education are openly decried. Literal lightning strikes while Géquil is conducting some electrical experiments alone, imbuing her with a mysterious charge that both triggers changes in her personality and transforms her body into undiluted, incontrollable light.
It’s hard to keep up with all the competing elements that Mrs. Hyde throws into the mix, as wry, awkward comedy rubs up against nascent horror, social commentary vies with educational discourse, and the restraints of gender and disability meet the liberating force of scientific method. Our potential for bewilderment is only accentuated by Bozon’s seeming disinterest in marshalling any of these sets of elements into a clear trajectory or statement. The comedic sequences never truly bring the house down, while the horrific effects of Géquil’s newfound abilities remain largely unseen, just as the true extent, nature, and ultimate meaning of her transformation stays opaque. If anything, Bozon appears more interested in dwelling in the scenes before and after something significant happens; it’s perfectly possible to imagine another, more conventional version of Mrs. Hyde pieced together from all the things that happen here off screen. The actual film is certainly unusual, but it’s an academic exercise in the deconstruction of tropes and ideas that stimulates without feeling the need to satisfy.
The main prize given to Bulgarian director Ilian Metev’s 3/4 in the Filmmakers of the Present competition was a far more unusual decision however, as Metev’s film conspicuously lacks the sort of social issues, easy-to-grasp themes, or big names that juries at most festivals tend to want to award. The film’s opening sequence already encapsulates many of its quiet, freewheeling charms, a set of carefully clipped tracking shots that glide over the surface of a sunny playground in summer, first picking out a bottle being kicked back and forth, then various sets of legs and the shadows they cast, before one of the film’s protagonists, a boy of around 12 named Niki (Niki Mashalov), enters the frame. Niki takes an unusual joy in spouting absurdities, which frequently irritate his older sister, Mila (Mila Mikhova), particularly given her anxiety about an upcoming piano audition in Germany that will apparently determine her future. Their astrophysicist father, Todor (Todor Velchev), attempts both to calm Mila’s nerves and the friction between the children but is himself distracted by one of his students deciding to leave science behind.
Despite how inconspicuously these various threads are laid out, it still feels as if they’re building to some big outburst of tension, some momentous revelation, some longed-for catharsis. Yet somehow other things keep getting in the way: relaxation exercises, talk of magnifying glasses or squirrels, vegetables being chopped, playful scrapes, numerous walks through the town in the afternoon sun or at dusk—each captured in the same clipped tracking shots employed at the outset. Mila does indeed have one final rehearsal that remains unseen, Niki stomps off in anger, and Todor’s assistant may or may not have cut the cord, but by the film’s gently radical ending, none of these things seem to matter anymore, or rather the portent they appeared to hold has simply evaporated. While 3/4’s languid de-dramatization doesn’t summon up the same emotional impact as, say, Valerie Massadian’s Milla, which had to make do with the Special Jury prize, it equally recognizes that giving priority to atmosphere and feeling can be a narrative strategy in itself.
Given that this edition of Locarno was its 70th, it was a shame that no special anniversary prize was created and bestowed on Raúl Ruíz’s gloriously strange The Wandering Soap Opera. Perhaps giving a prize to a director who died almost six years ago to the day was a bridge too far for the jury, not least because the Chilean master already received a Golden Leopard way back at the beginning of his career for 1968’s Three Sad Tigers. The material that makes up The Wandering Soap Opera was originally shot over seven days in 1990 but was only edited together recently by Ruíz’s widow, Valeria Sarmiento, credited as co-director here, based on Ruíz’s original script. The film’s central premise is that the best approximation for Chilean reality following the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship is that of a soap opera or telenovela; after all, what other narrative form is flexible enough to accommodate all the pent-up collective spasms of 17 years of repression? Yet even so, Ruíz manages to push even the wild shifts in tone and narrative contrivances permitted by the soap opera almost to breaking point, creating a fragmented, sinuous, endlessly inventive work whose incessant flights of fancy feel radical now, to say nothing of when it was shot nearly 30 years ago.
The Wandering Soap Opera unfolds as a collection of extended, largely unrelated scenes, each so replete with twists and turns, both narrative and verbal, that describing them in succinct form is practically impossible. The opening scene alone starts off with a businessman who compares touching his lover’s body with traversing Chile from top to bottom; she seems for her part more interested in his political affiliations and position on divorce. Her husband, who’s also his business partner, duly arrives but only pulls a gun once the profit margins of a mining company have been discussed at length; in between, a bad poem is delivered, a poisoned lemon disposed of, and the sexual appeal of muscles discussed, which then duly appear in the form of lumps of raw flesh that the businessman presses into his lover’s hand. Like most of the scenes in the film, the impression is of the plot of an entire risible soap opera having been condensed into just a few concentrated minutes, albeit with the sort of platitudes and banalities often associated with soaps rendered as untrammeled surrealism.
With no overarching story to link together the individual scenes, the connections between them are forged instead by various recurring formal characteristics and motifs: lurid colors and stabs of melodramatic music, hyper-redundant dialogue that amusingly bounces back and forth between two or three abstract concepts, snippets of commentary about the current state of Chile, constant self-referential talk about soap operas, television screens that the camera is happy to zoom onto or even actually enter, thus progressively creating passages between numerous different sets of moving images that soon resemble a labyrinth. And perhaps this latter idea is the true purpose of The Wandering Soap Opera: to take advantage of the new era now dawning in order to pump out a myriad of perpetually overlapping images—both for and of a country—that were unable to be produced before. These are images that are no longer subject to restriction and free to give birth to new ones at will, just as they do in one character’s beautiful monologue from one of the film’s most stunning scenes: “I see a cloud that’s moving away quickly. No, it’s not a cloud, it’s a veil, a veil that’s tearing. Thousands of veils are blown by the wind to the big cities. Every veil is an angry and rushed dialogue, an unfinished soap opera.”
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 2—12.