Titled as if in homage to Fiona Apple, Ben Rivers’s The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is the latest in the filmmaker’s unpredictable efforts to not simply fuse documentary and fiction, but set them against each other. For a time, it chronicles a film shoot out in the Moroccan mountains, where a director (Oliver Laxe) orders around a cast and crew of locals to present a realistic glimpse of life in the region. Yet the dailies taken from this production give away the charade, surrounding moments of folk singing and custom with calls of “action” and “cut.” In one shot, a man breaks the spell of his singing when he flashes a thumbs-up to the camera, foregrounding that his performance was just that.
Most of what Rivers depicts, however, is the downtime between filming, where the mystical, unknowable quality of the land as expressed through more active footage gives way to the quotidian and banal. Even cutaways to static landscapes and animals suggest boredom, skewering the poetic effects many ethnographic filmmakers and exoticizing fantasists consciously place over their supposed truth. In fact, for a time the film resembles a spoof of a Werner Herzog shoot, one without a rampaging lead actor to rile the set and with the local extras visibly irritated by this pointless exercise.
Just as the deliberate tedium starts to become genuinely tedious, Rivers throws a curveball when Laxe’s director is suddenly abducted by locals and turned into a grotesque entertainment himself. Clad in a sack festooned with the lids of rusted tin cans, the director is dragged around landscapes that no longer hold any wonder for him. Despite taking up nearly half the running time, this downturn of fortunes could be called the film’s punchline: Western filmmakers ordinarily use exotic locales and indigenous people to entertain viewers back in the West, but here the director suffers the inverse fate by becoming the sport of Moroccans.
Yet for a film that debunks the notion of objective cinema in the pursuit of documenting cultures different from one’s own, it flirts with the flipside of the cliché: that of a civilization’s true face being its most callous and violent. Nonetheless, Rivers provides a strong check to the hubris and ignorance often inherent to this kind of filmmaking. The Sky Trembles also boasts perhaps the best final shot of the year: a sprint across sunset-lit desert sand that’s at once liberating, bleakly funny, tragic, and, above all, sublimely photographed.
If Rivers’s film brutalizes its artist’s ego, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg follow-up, Chevalier, takes a more sardonic look at vanity. Situated on a yacht carrying a group of men back home to Athens, the film homes in on the way that male competitiveness runs on instinct and informs even banal conversations that can devolve suddenly into a meaningless display, like doing quick division in one’s head. Even innocuous games trigger explosive arguments, as when a roundtable of guys describing each other as objects prompts a furious debate over semantics when one man likens another to a cuddly panda.
This constant gamesmanship comes to a head when some of the guys decide to go for broke and conceive a contest to determine who among them is “the best in general.” Soon, everyone has turned into both contestant and judge, toting around notepads in which they assign or detract points arbitrarily in relation to perceived strengths and weaknesses of character. Yet Tsangari complicates what might otherwise have been a humorous but straightforward critique of macho posturing by gradually pushing the men into increasingly feminized scenarios. The early spats of nearly literal dick-measuring fall out in favor of aggressive domesticity, with scenes depicting vigorous vacuuming and impeccable etiquette. The funniest moment, in fact, may be when an elitist doctor belches during a meal and jolts upright in pure terror as those around him wordlessly flip open their notepads and click their pens.
As humorous as the film’s depiction of male insecurity may be, Tsangari’s clear affection for the men eschews simple condemnation. The director cites Cassavetes as an inspiration, and Chevalier shares much in common with Husbands. Both films stare headlong at characters’ arrested development and suggest that traits commonly pegged as immature may be standards of conceptual masculinity, but both also see the charm in their characters’ buffoonery. Here, that charm is most visible in the scene of a contestant performing an enthusiastic lip-sync of Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You,” and his peers receive this performance with great delight and encouragement. Only when someone else interrupts with a more traditionally masculine display involving handheld fireworks and clownish mockery do the others castigate and deduct points, shaming the usurper for so rudely stepping on the other’s lovely entertainment.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—20.