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Denis Côté (#110 of 9)

Locarno Film Festival 2017 Cocote, Prototype, A Skin So Soft, & Milla

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Locarno Film Festival 2017: Cocote, Prototype, A Skin So Soft, & Milla

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Locarno Film Festival 2017: Cocote, Prototype, A Skin So Soft, & Milla

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.

Viennale 2013 Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Gold, Demolition, Three Landscapes, & Our Sunhi

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Viennale 2013: Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Gold, Demolition, Three Landscapes, & Our Sunhi
Viennale 2013: Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Gold, Demolition, Three Landscapes, & Our Sunhi

Though “Safety Last!” was the name given by the Viennale this year to a special program compiling 12 Will Ferrell sketches from Saturday Night Live, it could have also titled an unofficial subsection of films during this year’s festival. We’re now past the midway point of the 51st Viennale, and I’ve already seen a number of features and documentaries in which people endure—or see themselves perilously close to enduring—profound hazards to their bodies.

Two such films premiered (and invited unlikely comparisons) at the Berlinale earlier this year: Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, by Quebecois writer-director Denis Côté, and Gold, a Canada-set western by German filmmaker Thomas Arslan. Both works contain a scene involving the lethal jaws of a bear trap. In Vic + Flo, the snap brings the film’s tonal peculiarity and suggestive menace to a logical endpoint, whereas in Gold it sends one of its more intriguing characters to an early death.

Berlinale 2013 The Grandmaster, Gold, & A Single Shot

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Berlinale 2013: The Grandmaster, Gold, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, & A Single Shot
Berlinale 2013: The Grandmaster, Gold, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, & A Single Shot

Since coming home from the sumptuous, if lopsided, American road trip of My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-wai has been hard at work on his martial-arts epic The Grandmaster. Perhaps the most explicitly in dialogue with film history of all his works thus far, the film will read as a much-needed strike of lightning to wu xia for connoisseurs of the genre and a feature-length TV spot for others. Which is to say that its visual design is (surprise, surprise) magnificently original, but it lacks Wong’s characteristic elliptical approach to storytelling that has won him so many admirers. Pierre Rissient allegedly dismissed Wong as “postcard cinema”—and it hurts to say it, but The Grandmaster might be more impactful as a series of stills than a motion picture.

Set mainly over the course of the 1930s in Foshan, a city in southern China, the film narrates the Ip Man’s (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) rise to prominence as a Wing Chun grandmaster, focusing especially on his brushes with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of one of the grandmasters from the north. Although they cross paths across many years, Wong forgoes the melancholic romanticization of time we’ve come to expect from him and opts to tell their story in a disappointingly linear fashion, Hollywoodian flashback included. Essentially a biopic wrapped in a kung-fu art film, The Grandmaster’s ambition but feeling of incompletion brings to mind Sam Peckinpah’s analogous probing of national history, mythology, and masculinity.

Sundance Film Festival 2012: Bestiaire

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: <em>Bestiaire</em>
Sundance Film Festival 2012: <em>Bestiaire</em>

It opens with a series of attentive glances thrown every few seconds toward an unseen object, which then proves to be a stuffed doe being sketched by a group of art students. Within that single opening scene, director Denis Côté both establishes his main theme and prescribes the viewer how to approach his film, since a hard, focused look is exactly what’s required to appreciate Bestiaire’s wordless, unlovely splendor.

As we start scrutinizing an unfamiliar space populated by a surprising variety of animal species (introduced in an ascending order of exoticness), we slowly realize we’re inside zoo facilities. Contrary to, say, Frederick Wiseman, whose habitually mammoth 1993 documentary Zoo examined the practical ways the eponymous facility was run, Côté is so disinterested in the mundane aspects of the institution he portrays as to make it look positively abstract. Instead of a narrative of a specific place in time, what we get is a distillation of a place into a string of visions that can work both as documentary and as a free-associational ode to life and stillness alike.

White Nights at the Saint Petersburg International Kinoforum 2011

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White Nights at the Saint Petersburg International Kinoforum 2011
White Nights at the Saint Petersburg International Kinoforum 2011

When asked by Russians whether this was my first visit to St. Petersburg, I replied enigmatically, “Yes and no.” The answer was that I had been to Saint Petersburg, Florida and Leningrad, neither of which has much in common with the spectacular present-day Russian city, the ideal setting for a film festival. The Kinoforum in its first bona fide year (there was a small experimental version in 2010) is one of the only festivals that gives equal importance to tourism, debates, and movies. Held during the celebrated White Nights in July, the superbly organized touristic side gave guests the chance to attend a ballet (Don Quichotte) at the Marinsky Theatre; a huge open-air show put on especially for us at the Summer Palace, with a banquet thrown in; a symphony concert beside a lake, including Tchiakovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which concluded with a fireworks display instead of a cannon; a magical boat trip up the Neva by night; and a visit to the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest collection of paintings (the festival enabled us to jump the long, long line to get in).

Los Angeles Film Festival 2011: En Terrains Connus, Le Vendeur, Curling, Salaam Dunk, & Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul

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Los Angeles Film Festival 2011: <em>En Terrains Connus</em>, <em>Le Vendeur</em>, <em>Curling</em>, <em>Salaam Dunk</em>, & <em>Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul</em>
Los Angeles Film Festival 2011: <em>En Terrains Connus</em>, <em>Le Vendeur</em>, <em>Curling</em>, <em>Salaam Dunk</em>, & <em>Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul</em>

There’s been an incredible amount of snow in Los Angeles this week. It’s coming in from Alaska, from Wisconsin, from Latvia; it’s all up on screen, with a considerable number of movies set in bleak white snowscapes. Maybe there’s nothing more exotic to Southern Californians than seeing people in heavy overcoats and riding snowmobiles. This sense of snow is most apparent in the trio of Québécois films, which all share distinct commonalities, screening at the festival. Besides being utterly blanketed in snow, these French Canadian films are all methodically paced and play with the passage of time. They dissect the functioning (or dysfunction) of the family unit, and are preoccupied with notions of personal isolation and mortality. While not necessarily bearing the markers of a distinct or organized film movement, these contemporary offerings from Quebec all spring from similar sensibilities.

New Directors/New Films 2011: Curling

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New Directors/New Films 2011: <em>Curling</em>
New Directors/New Films 2011: <em>Curling</em>

The last several years have seen the influx of a number of films about characters shielding either themselves or their families from the alleged dangers of the world, confining their lives to a greater or lesser degree to the relative safety of the domestic fortress. Call it Shut-In Cinema. To Ursula Meier’s Home, Anders Edström and C. W. Winter’s The Anchorage, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, and Bong Joon-ho’s segment in the anthology film Tokyo!, we can now add Denis Côté’s Curling, making its New York debut at New Directors/New Films. Rivaling The Anchorage, the best of the above listed works, in its combination of utter precision of detail and overwhelming sense of mystery, Côté’s film makes for instructive comparison with the movie it most superficially resembles, Lanthimos’s celebrated tale of overprotective parenting gone bonkers.