World Cinema Now
Flying in the Face of Formal Predictability
Some of the most important contemporary filmmakers in Europe and beyond belong to movements; others seem to function much more in a personal vacuum. While the directors of Romania like Cristi Puiu, Christian Mungiu and Corneliu Porumboiu constitute a wave, in France Philippe Grandrieux, Gaspar Noe and Bruno Dumont defy one. Where we can see a signature style with certain differences in the Romanian directors, with the French filmmakers differentiation is vital. Other discernible waves of the last decade or two include the Greek movement with Yorgos Lanthimos, Alexander Avranas and Athina Rachel Tsangari, the Berlin school with Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec and Valeska Grisebach, and the new Turkish cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Emir Demirkubuz and Tayeun Pirselimoglu. Further afield, Filipino cinema has defined itself through a wave even if the directors that are part of it (including Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza and Raya Martin) are stylistically quite distinct. But the danger of seeing cinema in waves is that we miss the isolated pools. Here we can think of Jose Luis Guerin in Spain, Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Thailand, and Jia Zhangke in China. It is not that there aren't other filmmakers with whom we can discern affinities in each instance: perhaps Albert Serra and Jaime Rosales Spain; Pen-Ek Ratanaruang in Thailand; and other sixth generation directors from China: Zhang Yuan and Lou Ye. But Guerin, Weerasethakul and Jia Zhangke are individuals. Yet perhaps this is a perceptual assumption: that once the directors establish themselves with two or three films, then the movement that launches their career becomes secondary to the style and personality of the individual filmmaker. Godard and Truffaut were part of the French New Wave, Wenders and Herzog vital to New German cinema, but they are remembered not because of the wave to which they belonged, but because of the body of work they went on to create.
The above paragraph packs in a lot of names in a short space, and the rest of this essay's purpose is to unpack it, to try and give to the names mentioned singularity, to explain and explore how many of the aforementioned have taken cinema to interesting places around and after the new millennium. When Gaspar Noe debuted in 1998 with Seul contre tous a proper enfant terrible had arrived, contained by the personality of his central character who was the opposite: a fifty year old butcher washed up and dried out. Unemployed, he lives with his partner and her mother, and all he can wait for is a baby the partner is pregnant with and that he horrifically almost disposes of after he violently attacks her. Noe keeps us at arm's length from the butcher's personality through the character's attitude and behaviour, and pulls us in close through the film's style. Shot in 16mm widescreen, and with a constant haranguing voice-over and hard zooms accompanying the sound of a gunshot to play with our nerves, we are inside this guy's head even if we want to be far away from his value system. He is an animal, but aren't we all? As Noe says, "before being humans with morals, people are mostly animals, fighting for domination and survival." (Guardian)
It is an impressive act of push-me pull-me identification that Noe's cinematic brilliance generates, and it is as though what interests him is how to create aloof immediacy: a paradoxical term but one that sums up Noe's glee in playing with an audience. He isn't a ludic filmmaker but he is a manipulative one, and he extends it into his second feature Irreversible as he tells the story of revenge backwards, with a boyfriend wanting justice for his girlfriend's lengthy, real-time rape. Noe expects the viewer to be squirming in their seats at a scene that goes on forever, but any realism he demands is countered by the style in which he offers it. The underground passage where she is abused is a tunnel of hell in garish red, and the skimpy dress Monica Bellucci wears is presented as erotic come-on. She is both the sexy star of a biggish-budgeted European film, and a character who is the victim of of a terrible crime. It isn't enough to say that Noe wants to show what a real rape looks like; it is more that he wants to ask us questions about desire in cinema located within the context of a verisimilitude that plays with our cinematic wishes. A nude Bellucci is box-office; a cinematic rape victim is an atrocity. Just as Seul contre tous worked with a push-me, pull-me wish to leave the audience in a state of discomfort over where we should stand concerning the butcher; so in Irreversible we might ask what we should feel in relation to Bellucci's character. The film's poster presented Bellucci as an alluring presence, wearing the very dress she will be wearing as she goes into the underpass. The poster indicates a sexual object; the scene itself the humiliated subject. Noe troublesomely works between the two notions, all the while filming each scene within the context of a reverse narrative. Thus when in one scene early on her boyfriend Vincent Cassel goes into a club, we are in state of confusion. As one man gets his head horribly bashed in with a fire extinguisher, this killing is administered not by Cassel but by his buddy, and not applied to the rapist but to another man altogether. Not only is it a revenge attack for a crime we have yet to see, it also displaced by the buddy doing the deed and the rapist looking on.
In Enter the Void, Noe shows a young man shot dead early in the film and follows his consciousness through the course of events taking place in his absence. Noe wanted to, "in a cinematic way, reproduce the perception of someone who is on drugs." At one moment Noe goes back in time and shows the moment when the central character's parents died in a car crash, and then repeats it later on. It is a typical scene of pulp meeting pathos, with Noe creating a visceral thrill and milking the tragedy. As the camera hovers over the dead parents' bodies in the front seat and the central character and his sister in the back, he has the kids screaming for their parents. While a lot has been said about French cinema in the new millennium and its relationship with the troublesomely explicit, with Dumont, Noe, Grandrieux and others mixing genre tropes with art house sensibilities, nobody more than Noe appears to possess this dichotomous sensibility as a reflex. He thinks simplistically and films with great sophistication, and in this we may notice similarities with genre filmmakers like Leone, Argento and, yes, Quentin Tarantino. He nevertheless remains important as something other than just a generic filmmaker because this register is more ethically complicated than it happens to be in even these very fine genre filmmakers' works. Noe's world doesn't at all reassure us, and if the sensibility were a little bit more refined he could take us to hell. His hellish scenes (the suicidal moments near the end of Seul contre tous, the fire extinguisher sequence in Irreversible, the car crash in Enter the Void) are nevertheless, however horrific, contained by a generic mindset that robs them of true terror.
Do we offer this as no more than a journalistic judgement? Maybe not if we think of Philippe Grandrieux's work. Here is a filmmaker who is also, like Noe, interested in altered states and hellish worlds. As he says in a brilliant interview with Nicole Brenez in Rouge, 'The Body's Night', he is fascinated by "what links us very intimately to chaos, to disaster. Which takes us to the question of what it is to be human, this constant menace, a pressure so great that it envelops us." Yet the basic difference between Noe and Grandrieux is Noe's generic need to entertain and determined desire to offend. Perhaps the artist ought to be like the thinker in Nietzsche's formulation: "a thinker needs no applause and clapping of hands, if only he is assured of his own hand-clapping." (The Gay Science) Grandrieux's work doesn't have the need of a crowd permeating it, and this leads to a very different aesthetic. Where Noe's has an element of the fairground, with the director a master of ceremonies asking us to come in and marvel at his grotesque delights, Grandrieux is quietly investigating states of consciousness that people can witness if they choose to do so. Thus Grandrieux's images contain a fundamentally meditative quality no matter how extreme the events he happens to show us. In a sequence from La vie nouvelle a woman gets beaten by someone in a hotel room, and while Grandrieux doesn't expect us to be indifferent to the experience, he neither assumes we can have an immediate relationship with what we are shown. Where Noe makes it unequivocal that we are watching an innocent woman raped in a Parisian underpass, this hotel room scene in a liminal place between the east and west, between characters whose relationship we can't quite define, leaves us feeling unsure about what exactly is going on.
Here we have a delocalized space that critic Adrian Martin insists on seeing as Sarajevo(KinoEye), while Grandrieux has talked of filming in Sofia. This is a neither/nor of location all the better to emphasize human states over social conditions. This is a new world where our moral coordinates are no longer in place, and Grandrieux would seem more than any French filmmaker interested in what some critics have seen as new French extremism, including writers James Quandt (in Artforum) and Martine Beugnet (in Cinema and Sensation) Whether it has been Bruno Dumont or Claire Denis, Christophe Honore or Catherine Breillat, Noe or Grandrieux, this is a cinema that takes Hollywood absolutes often linked to generic certitude or moral assertiveness, and turns them inside out. "Yet what we notice in Grandrieux, even more than in Denis' Trouble Every Day, or Dumont's Twentynine Palms, is that a maximum amount of coordinates are sacrificed. If Denis disintegrates the horror film by making Trouble Every Day part vampire film, part zombie flick and part werewolf movie without acknowledging any specific horror sub-genre, and Dumont makes a revenge movie where the vengeful's motives are vague as the villains remain mainly offscreen, Grandrieux goes further still.
In Sombre he offers a serial killer film that is less interested in the punctuated killings usually central to the genre, than in emphasizing a state of darkness. Now obviously many serial killer films emphasise the nocturnal nature of the genre, including Silence of the Lambs, Seven and Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. But this is often no more than a backdrop to the foregrounded numbers game. As John Orr notes in The Art and Politics of Film,"...the horror of the serial killer works not only through documenting the enormity of crimes committed, but through repetition and its possibilities." Grandrieux reverses this, emphasizing the darkness, psychological and literal, to the detriment of punctuated killing. Often the film plays against the light as we see the central character driving, or gives us bodily fragments. Instead of providing the knowing awareness of what is coming next (narratively evident, say, in the seven deadly sins that make up the motivations of the serial killer in Seven), Grandrieux takes us into the scattered phenomenology of the killer, while alongside it exploring the milieu in which he moves. In some scenes we watch the passing landscape from the car, and the image starts to blur as the vehicle passes at speed, but the film is even more demanding still because Grandrieux allows the image to decompose and lose its realist coordinates.
Grandrieux captures the mind of a serial killer, but that is more the by-product of his interest in generating original perception. In one scene where the central character (Marc Barbe) goes into a club, the film half-attends to Barbe, and focuses as much on the strobic, pulsating light and music. It is an opportunity to capture agitation, but it is as though this isn't a reflection of a person's nerves; it is the milieu as throbbing beat. It might reflect the headache that is Barbe's mind, but it is also a world in which he moves. It would be an oversimplification to say the film reflects Barbe's perspective; it is a perceptual framework that incorporates Barbe's world. In one sequence we see Barbe, a couple of men and also a woman in an apartment, and the song we hear is Bauhaus's Bela Lugosi is Dead. The sequence turns nasty as Barbe starts to beat one of the other men, but the greatness of the scene like many others in the film resides in its halfway-house between Barbe's agitated state, and the film's agitated qualities. It neither quite becomes one thing nor the other, but represents a fold of evil between personal chaos and a world of malevolence.
This happens to be so in La vie nouvelle too. The characters are chaotic but the world is 'insane' as Grandrieux allows himself to be a properly expressionistic filmmaker by making not merely characters mad but worlds mad as well. When Brenez says in 'The Body's Night' that "it's also the exacerbation of any suburb in any city, any oppressive housing estate which drives people crazy with unhappiness, which mutilates them and robs them of themselves", Grandrieux acknowledges this by saying, "yes, all that is given in the truth of Sofia." Grandrieux shares with Noe a world of chaos and madness, but Grandrieux's worlds are more indeterminate, the fold much more complexly presented. The light is constantly fading away and dissolving characters into the darkness in the director's work, and the music, by Suicide's Alan Vega in Sombre, by Etant Donnes in La vie Nouvelle, resurrects the self as nervous system. Generally cinema offers representational selves in good light and with nervous systems in contained bodies - Grandrieux undermines this assumption. Even Un Lac, which in story form could be described almost as film noir, gets in so close to the characters, and dislocates us from the comfort of established cinematic spaces, that again the self is not given. Of La vie NouvelleGrandrieux said: "It's a vibrant presence. My perception of the film was physical and intimate, like for a shaman. I just had to be a conductor for the flux, the music, the rhythms - the body exists to transmit all this." ('The Body's Night') In all three films a character seems always capable of losing themselves, and few filmmakers outside of David Lynch capture this in visual form. In a scene that inevitably echoes Isabella Rossellini's numbers in Blue Velvet Anna Mouglalis sings and the audience is more than enchanted: they are bewitched, overcome, and the film reflects this in the reaction shots that show characters poking out of the encompassing darkness, semi-disembodied creatures.
The third important contemporary French filmmaker is Bruno Dumont, a director who offers shocking imagery but within the context of an image that dawdles, that always builds meditative intensity over nervous immediacy. There are murders and beatings evident in most of Dumont's films: from the murdered body of the raped girl near the beginning of L'humanite, to the horrible beating administered to the central male character in Twentynine Palms. There are explosions (Hadewijch) and the presence of madness (Camille Claudel 1915), with terrorist actions in the former, and the use of the evidentially clinically insane in the latter. While Grandrieux achieves an expressionist force in his work, Dumont is more inclined to an impressionist aloofness combined with moments that turn the world into a momentary hell. Noe and Grandrieux are interested in decomposing the image moment by moment, if in quite different ways. Dumont usually wants the most composed of images interrupted with a forceful contrast. He shocks the viewer within stillness, rather than traumatises the viewer with an ongoing freneticism. Dumont's aesthetic is often closer to a fixed stare than a constant blink, apparent for example in a church sequence in Hadewijch, or the opening scene in L'humanite.
In Hadewijch, Dumont cuts back and forth between the church musicians performing, and the film's central character, Celine. But each shot is a lengthy unit, and there are in the three and half minute sequence four shots on the musicians, four on Celine's gaze, and one shot at the end where Celine gets up from the pew and moves towards them. While the shots on musicians start wide and then with each shot that returns to them becomes tighter until we see only the violinist in the fourth, the shot of Celine moves closer towards her during each take. Here is a woman swept up by the music, an aspiring nun from a wealthy family seeking spiritual sustenance, and Dumont films it with respect for the soul. In L'humanite, the opening shot shows a figure in the distance crossing the landscape from left to right, before cutting sharply to what will prove to be our central character entering the frame. Is this the same figure from the fixed opening shot? Unequivocally what the opening gives us is the feeling that the film will take place within the wide vista of experience and not a narrow notion of character.
Dumont films in his home town of Bailleul, and the central character takes his name from Pharaon De Winter, a late nineteenth century French painter from the village, and whose work we see our protagonist gazing at in one scene. The press kit that accompanied the film was made up of a handful of the artist's works, and Dumont openly acknowledges the importance of painting on his films as well as the significance of landscape. "I've been influenced by many artists, such as Lucien Freud, and Courbet", he says in Projections 12, later adding, "landscape has such a strong presence for us, because we have a primitive tie with nature. Landscape is the first expression of nature - it's the surface truth." While Noe and especially Grandrieux are filmmakers more interested in the body and the nerves, and thus suggest movement, Dumont is a director of the landscape and the quietly pictorial, and this takes him closer to stillness.
Often in Dumont's work it isn't the violence which is the most memorable dimension but its physical consequences. The young girl raped and murdered in L'humanite is shown after the event, a body lying in the cold, hard ground, an image directly out of Courbet's The Origin of the World. We do get to see the attack on David in Twentynine Palms, but it is the consequences that give the film its aesthetic distinctiveness. As he sits on the bed weeping, he looks like a subject from a Bacon painting, his face battered and bruised. It is the stillness even in the violent that interests Dumont, the sense of aftermath that reduces the body to its state and not its actions. "A man's relationship with his place of birth is unique; it requires no explanation, it is simply there and it belongs to me. It is the most natural, the most powerful landscape, it is the beginning of everything. I am bound to it with all my being, my blood flows through it. There is a mystical and sacred bond between me and that place, in all its immensity and profundity." (Projections 12)
Dumont couches man not as a figure of action in the world, but an originary being contained by geological conditions much greater than his nervous system. If Dumont rarely gives us characters who are fluid, mobile and restless, but instead shows us people stiff, contained and pinched, then this isn't the consequence of bad acting (as numerous critics claimed when they were astonished the actor playing Pharaon won a key acting award at Cannes), but an ontological choice: to show being closer to the inert than the active. It is evident right from his first feature, La vie de Jesus, with young Freddy inertial not only because of his unemployed status in the small town in which he lives (Balieul), but also because this inactivity is central to Dumont's concerns. Rather than saying he adopts a quiet, generally fixed aesthetic to reflect Freddy's unemployed status, it is more the other way round. Dumont wants an unemployed character to reflect the aesthetic choice that serves a deeper, philosophical one.
"But how can you make it so the camera has no preconceptions or there's no anticipation in the movement of the camera? We make anticipations all the time. The camera can't be stupid. It's not just an artificial recording device. There's a human being observing. Cinema is an instrument for investigating the real, for investigating life." (Film Quarterly) This is a remark by Cristi Puiu, the most assertive of the new Romanian directors, and one who more or less launched the movement internationally with his second feature The Death of Mr Lazarescu in 2005, and for some looked like he wanted to kill it off with his third four years later, Aurora. Here was a film that seemed to want to lose all the viewers the movement had gained: "As much as one admires the underlying tension", Trevor Johnston announced in Time Out, "Puiu brings to a series of expertly choreographed extended takes, his film demands close attention for three hours, only to deliver a relatively straightforward correlation between the viewer's often frustrating search for meaningful connections, and its portrait of a protagonist driven to extreme measures to re-order the narrative of his own life." Andrew Schenker in Slant said of the film: "for all the viewer's constant immersion in the specifics of Viorel's activity, there's the sense of constantly rubbing up against the unknowable, as both the character and the meaning of his activity and relationships remain as inscrutable as his tightly drawn stoic's face." In theFilm Quarterly interview Puiu acknowledges this inscrutability is very deliberate: that he knows the interconnections of characters which he refuses to reveal to the audience, and that he took scenes out of the script all the better to generate this obfuscation. When Schenker says that Puiu is perhaps suggesting that such knowledge of a character is beyond the ken of cinema but not beyond that of the novel, we might reply that the novel suggests no matter the choices it makes, the mind of its writer, where the film suggests the reality which it films. Then of course the writer can make the work as 'mindless' as they wish (Hemingway's refusal to indicate an inner life), or cinematically as mindful as they choose: evident in films reflecting the thought processes of its central character (as we find in Raul Ruiz's Proust adaptation Time Regained for example).
In this sense the Romanian new wave is a realist movement, more interested in staying aloof to a character's motivations rather than getting into the minds of its protagonists. Puiu's Aurora is an extreme example of this because he doesn't quite let a story develop around the actions of its hero. For example, a film might not care to indicate a character's inner thoughts, but it can easily make clear his immediate motivations. When we cut from the character in a tight corner with a villain brandishing a knife, and we see our hero looking at a pan of boiling water, and cut back and forth between the hero, the villain and the pan, we know what the hero is thinking: will he be able to get to the pan before the villain realises what he wants to do? This is hardly complex thinking, but it does show cinema can very easily replicate a thought. Puiu wants the opposite of such immediate foreshadowing; instead he wants to create the broadest possible speculation around an action as the character constantly does things that leave us perplexed. Why is he lurking behind parked lorries, what is he doing harassing staff in a clothes shop, acting rudely to teachers at his daughter's school? Something will be revealed halfway through the film, and a little bit more at the film's conclusion, but Aurora accepts the enigma central to the surface of the world: that in film as in life a mind can easily be hidden from us. Puiu may talk about about the camera not being stupid, but it can possess a very careful, diligent form of intelligence that doesn't announce its story, but very incrementally reveals it to us.
There are probably about a dozen important works in New Romanian cinema, but the other filmmakers who share Puiu's interest in the reinvention of realism are Cristian Mungiu and Corneliu Porumboiu. Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palm d'Or at Cannes and, with the strongly issue-driven subject of abortion, became an art house success. "After a strong and varied weekend kickoff to the spring indie-release season... it appears that this year's art-house film..." Andrew O'Hehir reported in Salon, "has achieved a milestone of sorts. Admittedly, $1 million in cumulative box-office receipts sounds like nothing special; a hit Hollywood movie might earn that much in a couple of hours of nationwide release." To put it into the context of demanding, minoritarian cinema, Abbas Kiarostami's Palm d'Or winner A Taste of Cherry made less than $10,000 on its first weekend, another winner, Eternity and a Day, $24,000. If Puiu refined the movement with Aurora, retreating from narrative exploration and explanation still further, Mungiu's film does the opposite: it makes the movement more immediate, resonant and even suspenseful. With its illegal abortion story, set during the Ceausescu regime which pushed for high birth rates leading to the Romanian orphanages that became well-known after the collapse of Communism, the film adds to its commercial potential by working with a high degree of suspense, and in several manifestations. Firstly, there is the risk involved having an abortion in a country where it is a crime, secondly, the friend whom the central character Otilia helps, is well over four months pregnant as the title indicates. This will be no easy abortion, and the person responsible for doing it, Mr Bebe hardly instils trust when he insists on sleeping with both women as he discovers how far gone Gabita happens to be, and just how much of a risk he believes he happens to be taking. Then after the operation Otilia has to rush off to meet her boyfriend's parents for a birthday party, and leaves Gabita alone in the hotel room, possibly haemorrhaging on the others side of town. Finally Otilia has to try and get rid of the foetus well aware of the risks involved.
The film creates goals and obstacles, and in Otilia a clear heroine, and in Mr Bebe an unequivocal villain. Yet this doesn't lead to obvious narrative, nor a weak thematic. When Otilia goes to the party, she is obviously fretting about her friend elsewhere, but the film focuses exclusively on the flat she is in, and doesn't at all cross-cut between the pair of them. Neither does it use this lengthy party scene as a mechanical issue of delayed suspense: the milieu in which she finds herself points out key differences between Otilia and her more middle-class boyfriend and family. Some might insist this makes Aurora a much weaker film and it should have learnt the narrative lessons from 4 Months.... After all, the latter made far more money at the box-office. But it is much healthier to see the different directions in which the image can take. Both films create curiosity not by initially presenting a problem, but working towards one. However, where Aurora constantly creates new areas of the inexplicable, as we frequently wonder what our central character happens to be doing even two thirds of the way through the film (when he visits a boutique for example), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days makes clear what the story is about and what the characters' motives happen to be, and then emphasizes the tension involved. As Mungiu says in an interview with Damon Smith, "I like to keep this [tension] in the film, to allow some things to be contained in the mind of the spectators." (Filmmaker Magazine) The suspense in Mungiu's film is often quite straightforward: Smith gives as an example a moment where Otilia is going through Mr Bebe's briefcase and finds a switchblade. This adds to the feeling of menace concerning an already menacing character, but of course it isn't very far removed from a scene in a thriller with the mistress rifling through her lover's things and discovering evidence that he wants to kill her. In this sense, Puiu's suspense is more demanding: when Viorel goes into the fashion boutique we don't know why he is there or what he will do. If we knew why he was there we would have a better idea of what he might do, but there is an indefinable menace in the sequence that is neither easily understood, nor finally realized. Mungiu's following film Beyond the Hills is however more inexplicable than 4 Months... even if less brilliant, with a young woman visiting her friend in a monastery and herself becoming possessed. The film is about instability, poverty and forms of bureaucracy as readily as it happens to be about religion, and Mungiu, basing it on an actual case, keeps it as resolutely realist as the subject allows.
Corneliu Porumboiu is best known for two quite different works, 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective. The first takes place mainly in a TV studio as a couple of people claiming to be involved in the Romanian revolution appear on air as they are interviewed about their political engagement. 12:08 was the exact time when Ceausescu fled in a helicopter: the heroes were those protesting in the Vaslui town square before 12:08, not those who turned up after Ceausescu had left. Were Mr Piscoci and Mr Manescu really heroes? There is a deadpan humour in the film attached to the dead loss figures at the film's centre, and a fixed aesthetic that focuses most of the film on the studio they happen to be sitting in. Imagine The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance taking place as a squabble over history in a confined environment and that captures something of the spirit (or the deliberate lack of it) in Porumboiu's film.
Police, Adjective is rather less sedentary. A young cop, Cristi, devotes much of the film's running time to the most pedestrian of activities: he walks around spying on small time criminals as an act of surveillance. There is no interest in the thrill of the chase, none of the enthusiasm for the criminal investigation. The central character stands at street corners looking less like an ace detective than himself a criminal loitering with intent. In terms of the film language there isn't much difference between Cristi and the central character in Aurora: one is a cop, the other a murderer, but this sums up well the vocabulary of New Romanian film, a language that creates a deliberate flattening out of character in relation to situation. The directors often don't look for what we can call a heightened vocabulary, but instead a deadened one. What is the difference? The heightened approach will utilise low angles and high angles, wide-angled suggestions of villainy, trumpeting musical accompaniment to indicate heroism and so forth. We exaggerate for effect, but so do the films. Romanian cinema offers the opposite of exaggeration for effect: it dolefully details to make us wonder what sort of hierarchy we should be concerning ourselves with. Usually when a cop is on someone's tail we expect a chase sequence; when a murderer is about to commit a deed there is often a sense of urgency. Yet recent Romanian film possesses a curious indifference to the terrible all the better to bring out the quality of despair. Whether it happens to be the central character in Aurora killing someone in an underground car park, Cristi here keeping an eye on criminal activity, the exorcism scenes in Mungiu's Beyond the Hills, or the accident that we don't see which sets in motion the story in Calin Peter Netzer's Child's Pose, the films seek out the de-dramatic and often punctuate these moments with others that suggest the irrelevant, the circuitous, the inarticulate. In one scene in Police, Adjective, Cristi is talking to a superior and most of the conversation is taken up with chat about architecture and Prague. At one moment he says,"anyway" as if they should start talking about something more important, but then starts on another digression. Even when Mungiu in 4 Months... builds suspense out of the friend potentially in trouble on the other side of the city, he does so by focusing on the idle discussion of family members when the central character visits her boyfriend. True, very occasionally the camera becomes expressive, evident in the scene where our troubled character in Aurora kills someone upstairs while the camera stays downstairs, doing so with a strange air of discretion; or when characters enter or exit the frame in 4 Months..., "this is why people come [into the frame] from off-camera;" Mungiu says, "there's a world behind and above". (Filmmaker Magazine)
Nevertheless this deliberate style remains consistent with the understated rather than with the exaggerated. Frequently in New Romanian cinema the camera isn't where it 'should' be, but too far away from the event, leaving the event off screen, or with the camera transfixed like it doesn't quite know what to do about what it happens to be witnessing. The horrible humour in new Romanian cinema often resides in an absurd contrast between where the camera is and where it ought to be. When the central character throws up in The Death of Mr Lazarescu, and it is clear he is seriously ill, it is as if the camera doesn't quite know where to put itself: to stay with the character puking, or to follow another character into the kitchen trying to deal with the situation. This notion of a formal approach that feels hesitant, indifferent, fretful or afraid is all part of an antithetical cinematic vocab to that which assertively tells its story.
While we might find in the Berlin School a film like Valeska Grisebach's Longing a more nuanced and interregatory work, and in Angela Shanelac's Passing Summer a quietly penetrating look at dead time, Christian Petzold's more narratively infused films have been the most successful in making the movement present internationally. In The State I Am In, Jerichow, Yella and Barbara, Petzold often creates enough tension in his scenarios for a thriller element rarely to be far away. In The State I Am In a family has been on the run for fifteen years, with the parents moving around ever since they have been wanted for terrorist activities in Germany. Now they are in Portugal with a fifteen year old daughter, and it is the daughter who is trapped in a life she hasn't chosen. Whether the genre happens to be the 'terrorist' film (a surprisingly large 'sub-genre' that can incorporate anything from The Baader Meinhof Complex to Munich, from Circle of Deceit to The German Sisters), the horror-inflected Yella (a semi-remake of Carnival of Souls) or a film noir (Jerichow), Petzold is good on modes of entrapment. In Yella a woman is trying to escape from a partner who won't take no for an answer as she also wants to escape from the financial world of which she was a part, and in Jerichow the central character falls for a returning soldier from Afghanistan, thus cheating on her half-Turkish businessman husband. In all three films the notion of escape proves vital; the difficulty in managing to do so paramount. In Yella and Jerichow, as well as Something to Remind Me and Barbara, the main roles are played by Nina Hoss, a fine leading lady who reflects Petzold's often slightly chilly aesthetic with astuteness. Tall, pinched thin, and usually showing signs of strain evident under large, intelligent eyes, Hoss is the director's actrice fetiche, and if he has often been compared to Claude Chabrol, Hoss is a halfway house between Chabrol's fetish actors Stephane Audran and Isabelle Huppert.
Some critics feel Petzold's work hasn't been distributed enough in Britain. "We seem to get so many French-speaking and Spanish-speaking movies of varying quality imported here", Peter Bradshaw proposed in the Guardian, "but not so many Germans, and Petzold has been sadly neglected". This is "all the more puzzling, because he deserves to be bracketed with Claude Chabrol, yet with something very distinctive, and distinctively Germanic, that is all his own." Yet compared to Grisebach, and Shanelach, Petzold's work has been quite widely released, with Yella and Barbara given British distribution, and others regularly seen at UK festivals, including The State I Am In and Jerichow at Edinburgh. However, Petzold is part of a movement that isn't so well-known or well-distributed. Where the Romanian films that are shown and promoted are at the centre of the country's key movement, it is often other German films that are better known and more widely seen. During the same period as the Berlin School, Fatih Akin's Head On, Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, Hans Weitgartner's The Edukators, Oliver Herschbiegel's Downfall and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others have been much more popular. The Berlin School can thus be seen not so much as the main movement in German cinema, more the major counter-movement in the country. It is not surprising von Donnersmarck and Herschbeigel have gone on to make films in Hollywood: there was very little in their filmmaking style that indicated filmmakers resistant to dominant modes of presentation, with von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others a film in the Hitchcockian tradition meeting film noir, playing up audio voyeurism, the suspense of a typewriter hidden under the floorboards, unrequited feelings and a doomed romance, all set during the Stasi era in East Germany. It made more than $77 million world-wide according to Box Office Mojo; Petzold's Yella less than a million.
The directors of the Berlin school might not claim too much of an affinity with each other, but nevertheless they share a contemplative, hesitant style next to the country's box-office successes. Their work doesn't possess a calling card aesthetic that has Hollywood knocking; they are more inclined to quietly knock German society. This is national cinema as national critique, a commonly utilised process of societal interrogation that refuses the hyperbolic narrative for a subtle examination of cultural specifics. If The Lives of Others and Run, Lola Run go for the broad sweep of grabbing viewers, Longing and Passing Summer go for the dedramatized. Passing Summer follows a young woman who decides to stay at home one summer rather than travelling; Longing focuses on a few characters in a small East German town which begins with a couple attempting suicide and concentrates on a marriage falling apart. The stories hardly develop, but milieux are patiently explored.
Turkish cinema was famous in the past chiefly for one name: Yilmas Guney, a filmmaker few of the contemporary filmmakers would be unlikely to deny as an influence, but someone whose presence manifests itself in different ways. Where Guney was a director interested often in the rural and the political (in The Herd and Yol), Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Zeki Demirkubuz and Tayeun Pirselimoglu are urban filmmakers, or concerned with urban characters elsewhere. Ceylan is undeniably the most famous: Winter Sleep's Palm d'Or was no surprise, with Ceylan a filmmaker whose Uzak, Climates and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia all hinting at festival glory. The more cynical might even suggest that festival success is Ceylan's raison d'etre (Ceylan has won five prizes at Cannes) and would prefer the raw energy of Demirkubuz. A. A. Dowde writing in the AVClub said of Winter Sleep: "Smart money was always on Ceylan: From the moment it was announced that this darling of the fest was returning to the French Riviera with a three-and-a-half-hour magnum opus, oddsmakers were calling it the one to beat."
Both Ceylan and Demirkubuz are directors of urban ennui, but where Ceylan often indicates the wry dissatisfaction of the often name-checked Chekhov, Demirkubuz is more Dostoevskian. But this might be to underestimate Ceylan's wayward psychological insight, with Climates especially showing a character who possesses an imp of perversity. This isn't so much a man who is self-destructive as capable of destroying others. The central character Isa looks like a figure who knows a bit about self-preservation but not very much about protecting the feelings of people around him. Whether it is briefly returning to an earlier lover that looks like it is doing nothing for the woman's well-being, or dropping his girlfriend when needs must, here is a man of procrastinating vanity: he never got round to finishing his Phd and can't commit to the demands of a relationship. There are little gestures here that point up his unsympathetic nature, as if, understandably, Ceylan is well aware that vacillation in love and lassitude within an academic work environment are acceptable responses: that the disreputability ought to lie elsewhere. Here it is evident in Isa taking a cabbie's number saying he will send on some pictures he has taken, and then crumpling the paper it is written on and dumping it into the ashtray shortly afterwards, talking to his colleague about how he can control his wife, and cajoling his own girlfriend into taking him back one evening before apparently rejecting her all over again by breakfast. This is more than just indecisiveness; it is a perverse cruelty. Climates gives the impression of a personal work: Ceylan plays the leading role and his lover is played by his wife. Yet such a response must be a tonal one: we shouldn't seek the personal out in biographical account, but see it as a chamber piece about the emotions. Like Bergman'sScenes from a Marriage, or Autumn Sonata, Climates is a film that feels personal as it concentrates on the minutiae of feelings and uses an aesthetic based on utilising frequent tight close-ups and a soundtrack that emphasizes domestic sounds often left out or hardly heard in films. This might be the rolling up of a beach mat, or the sound of a nut being eaten. Then again, the intimate can reside in the two shot close up, and the sound fading out to take on a subjective hue - both evident when Isa and his partner are motorcycling back from the beach.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia feels less personal than epic: a search for a missing body that segues into a film about time past. The first section focuses on the almost absurd time it takes to find the corpse; the second half shifts the emphasis. Where before there is a Beckettian sense of time being wasted as we concentrate on the prisoners, the commissioner, the prosecutor, the doctor and the search for the body, so nearer the end of the film time has a different dimension. It becomes an issue of time wasted not as frustration but with hints of regret. The film's achievement is to offer two distinct temporal possibilities within the one film, and the shift takes place in a fine sequence when the various characters on their search stop off at a house in the middle of nowhere and a beautiful young woman there enchants them all. Her youthful, enigmatic beauty is caught by Ceylan: he films her as an ethereal, golden figure caught in the light as if the men are not sure whether they have just dreamt her. In the last part of the film, the lazy sense of time has accumulated powerfully to suggest that dead time can suddenly manifest itself as memory. Doing 'nothing' can allow us to think something as the film focuses less on various people trying to find a body, than the doctor in the film cutting one up (he is doing an autopsy), and looking like he is thinking his own thoughts in the process.
Zeki Demirkubuz's finest film is probably Destiny, but Fate and Confession are works of great interest too. Fate is an adaptation of Camus's The Outsider, set in Turkey and more drab than Camus's sensuously located book, and the director is someone for whom passion is important but visual seduction of less interest. Where Ceylan is a photographer who makes films, and happens to be as focused on the compositional emphasis as on the story he tells, Demirkubuz is, like Perselimoglu, interested in the frame to bring out the grind of existence not its underlying beauty. He wants a form where people are sometimes framed within frames, suggesting that life is like a prison from which we are unlikely to escape. In one moment from Fate, Demirkubuz shoots the office with a strong sense of vertical lines carving up the frame, and with characters caught in glass offices, separated from others. The vertical lines he uses here don't quite suggest a cell (let us not be symbolic), but they do indicate a lack of freedom. The director is not so obvious as to present the vertical lines in close proximity suggesting bars, but uses door frames and partitions to indicate a world closing in.
In Fate, the central characters ends up of course arrested for his crime, but in Confession the married couple are caught by past misdemeanours: their present relationship is haunted by the fact that they became a couple at the expense of a third party. Their relationship is an act of imprisonment, with jealousy, guilt and suspicion creating a claustrophobic situation. In Destiny a character who mainly remains offscreen is constantly getting moved from prison to prison for disruptive behaviour, as his girlfriend obsessively follows him from place to place: she wants to be close to the prisons in which he is incarcerated. All the while the film focuses on the central character Bekir who is madly in love with the girlfriend, and in turn follows her from town to town, leaving behind a wife and child while he can't escape his emotional captivity. Again we see another film where modes of imprisonment are evident: it might be only one character who happens to be in jail, but the girlfriend and the man who loves her are both on life sentences too. At one moment Bekir tries to kill himself after Ugur categorically rejects him: he determines to escape from his obsession the only way he knows how, by taking his own life. Demirkubuz was himself incarcerated between the age of seventeen and twenty one (as a political prisoner shortly after the coup in 1980) and so it makes biographical sense that he has adapted The Outsider as well as Crime and Punishment (as The Waiting Room). Yet what makes Demirkubuz interesting is the manifold ways in which he explores captivity. This even applies to his own working methods. He is a filmmaker, he says, who makes films not with "liberties, but rather with obligations that I have to create for my own self." (Mental Minefields, The Dark Tales of Zeki Demikubuz). Olaf Muller writing on the director, aptly called his article "Prison as Metaphor is the Guiding Light of this Director's Austere, Literary Vision".
Tayfun Pirselimoglu (who is also a novelist) is very interested in moral questions, directing a trilogy called 'conscience and death' (Riza, Sac and Pus), before directing the internationally shown I'm Not Him. In the first of the trilogy, Riza, a truck driver needs money to repair his vehicle. He has no cash, and befriends an Afghan man in the hostel in which he stays, before killing him one day and taking the man's savings. The deed seems to be done impulsively, but the after effects are long-lasting. The man has a wife our central character tries to help, and an ex-wife of his own he goes to as a broken man: he wants to make amends for leaving the wife as if his latest, appalling action opens up the crack in which he can peer into and see other earlier wrongdoings as well. There is a neo-realist dimension to Riza, with the film a cross between Ossessione and Bicycle Thieves. Our hero is a weak man in a desperate situation: the axel has gone on his truck and lies like a corpse he says. Not long afterwards the metaphor becomes literal as he kills a man so that his truck can become Lazarus while he in the process destroys his own soul. The Bicycle Thieves element rests in the importance of one's means of employment; the Ossessionedimension in the murder he commits. When Bruno in Bicycle Thieves finally cracks and steals a bike near the end of the film we can see it as a minor misdemeanour, made enormous by the son witnessing his arrest. The murder in Ossessione is equal to the one here but the Italian film is contained within a dimension of the thriller: it is an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice. In Riza the title character acts appallingly within a social milieu rather than a generic one, and while we might wonder how easy it is to separate the two terms, in a noir we expect murder (it is a generic trope), in a social film we do not, and thus it becomes all the more horrific. We feel Riza isn't a murderer born, but a murderer made, and made out of the social miliieu that created him. His murderousness is an act of desperation more than greed, and before murdering the Afghan we see him pathetically trying to rob a public toilet assistant with the aid of a hammer. The man responds in kind by pulling out a gun.
Other Pirselimoglu films are more metaphysical in their interests, and none more so than I'm Not Him, where a disillusioned dishwasher takes up with a fellow-worker whose husband is in prison. At her place he sees a photo that suggests he and the woman's husband could be twins, and in time he takes over the man's identity, and soon gets taken for the very husband who people are surprised has been released from prison. Often in Pirselimoglu's films there is a feeling that the self and the person embodying it are slightly adrift. The central character in Riza is somehow both the man who needs to fix his truck and the one who has committed a murder, but walking through life not quite knowing who he happens to be. In Sac, a man who buys and sells hair become fascinated with one woman who wants to sell hers, and equally obsessed with her cruel husband. These are men whose sense of agency is slightly askew, no matter the extremities of their actions. There is a revenant quality to Pirselimoglu's work, as though everyone is locked outside themselves, with Turkey a country that doesn't quite want to to bring them back into the fold. As Variety critic Jay Weissberg says of I'm Not Him: "Pirselimoglu's fascination with the idea of becoming someone else, expressed in other works including his novels, reaches its apogee here, and in interviews he's allowed that the issue of identity lost, reclaimed, stolen can be seen as a metaphor for Turkey today."
Greece might have become a byword for the trauma of economic collapse, with people using the country the way others might adopt Belfast, Kabul or Sarajevo for the war-torn, but it would be facile to link directly recent Greek cinema with economic woes. Films like Dogtooth, Miss Violence, Attenberg and Alps seem to come more out of questioning wealth than adjusting to poverty, more about creating perverse comfort zones than showing social misery. In Dogtooth, director Yorgos Lanthimos said, "we were interested in how much you can distort human perception about the world." (The Quietus) Dogtooth shows a comfortably off Greek family insulating themselves from outside forces in absurdist ways. The children who are now adults never go out, with the father convincing them that the world beyond their neatly trimmed garden is ferocious, while the language they use at home is often an idiolect based on giving words names different from their general usage. This twofold absurdity is exacerbated by a third (Lanthimos often creates odd, off-centre framing that shows the bottom half of the body) and then by a fourth: he shows situations where the rationale becomes evident after the event and not before it. When the father gets out of his car and starts ripping up his shirt and pouring red dye over himself we wonder whether he has gone mad. But no, he is insanely rational: it is all part of the ruse that keeps the kids at home. He tells them that he has been attacked.
The emphasis in recent Greek cinema has been based on the neurosis of capitalism, a critique of capital not manifesting itself as a realist mode of desperation, but closer to a surrealist mode of irrationality. When in Miss Violence the father pimps his daughters to older men, the father might be struggling to make ends meet, but this is a radical means justifying the ends. It would be a stretch to say that Alexander Avranas is showing us how capitalism forces people into difficult situations. The term difficult is too weak: one entirely applicable to realist cinema from Loach to the Dardennes, to cover borrowing from a loan shark (as in Raining Stones) to grassing on your work colleague (Rosetta). But it is hardly able to incorporate the actions in Miss Violence where the film opens with one daughter jumping out of the window, while the father still nevertheless goes on to groom another daughter to be forced into the actions that led her sister to take her own life.
It is as though recent Greek cinema at its most interesting wants to examine the next stage of capitalist erosion as a certain type of madness. The writer Jonathan Crary says in 24/7, "everything once loosely considered to be "personal is now reconfigured so as to facilitate the fabricating of oneself into a jumble of identities that exist only as effects of temporary technological arrangements." Crary sees the lifetime job vanishing, our relationship with self becoming much more focused on various apparatuses (like the mobile phone), and sees us leading a much more virtual existence. Dogtooth exemplifies an impoverishment of world, not as material lack, but psychic limitation. The children's information doesn't come from outside, from 'reality', but from inside, from the fictional universe the father creates to keep them hemmed in and 'safe'. If realism (however nuanced, as evident for example in Rosetta), concerns itself with the material reality that erodes moral freedom as Rosetta will initially sacrifice friendship to keep a job, Dogtooth and Miss Violence ask what is the stage beyond that. This is where the mind is warped and ruined by a system of belief that thinks of course one protects one's children by falsifying the reality outside the nuclear family, of course one expects the children to give themselves to moneyed men who can afford to pay top Euro: you keep the financial wolves from the door by letting the wealthy take advantage of your daughters' bodies. These are films that match form with content, so that the daughter's suicide at the beginning of Miss Violence, for example, is an inexplicable act filmed in an elliptical style. Suddenly she drops out of the frame, as we wonder why she seems to be committing suicide, and what exactly has happened to her.
One senses very strongly in Greek cinema a movement, with the directors working closely with each other: Lanthimos for example took a lead role in Attenberg; Tsangari produced Lanthimos's Alps. Spanish film would appear much more fragmented, with perhaps its two most critically acclaimed filmmakers, Jose Luis Guerin, Jaime Rosales and Albert Serra, sharing little in common beyond admiration from the festival circuit and a Catalan background. Serra, for example, is a director of minimalist event, while Guerin is more interested in engima and mystery. If we feel watching Birdsong that Serra creates humour in the uneventfulness of these monks marching through the landscape, Guerin might also have very little going on but doesn't expect humour to fill the gap. He instead expands it, allowing suggestion to create possible worlds within the minimal story he chooses to tell. Even in what amounts to a documentary, En Construccione, Guerin finds spaces for subtle interactions that hint at possible worlds. In both Train of Shadows and In the City of Sylvia he creates the tantalizing. What is the relationship between the silent film he shows us and its recreation in the former we might wonder. In the City of Sylvia shows a young man arriving in the unnamed city of the title (actually Strasbourg), and who appears to be looking for Sylvia, a woman from a distant past. But the film is itself a process of looking, as we see the central character sitting in cafes and following people along the street. What exactly is he searching for, and what is he finding in the process? What are we finding too, as we see various fragmentary interactions between people in the cafe, and surmise what the relations between them are. And when we watch the leading character sketching in the cafe are we wondering whether Sylvia is there, with the central character biding his time, trying to make sure which one she happens to be? People watching is what most cinema does, but the possible permutations in our mind about what is going on amongst other humans is quickly closed down as narrative authority. Guerin allows for the speculative but pushes further than most our speculative faculties.
European cinema is a flexible term, with many films from beyond the continent relying on European funding. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's more recent films have been financed by Marin Karmitz, while Jia Zhangke relies on French funding too. Yet of course they remain singularly associated with their own countries in many other ways. Jia Zhangke's work has explored in various modes the state of a nation: China as it becomes a wealthy country at manifold cost: environmental, familial, psychological. 24 City blends fact and fiction as it explores the changes in Chengdu, a place previously a location for munitions that becomes a city of gentrification, with the older generation reminiscing about working round the clock, while the youngsters now exploit easier ways to make a living. In one segment, for example, Jia's actress fetiche Tao Zhao plays a young woman who buys and sells luxury goods for the new wealthy in Chengdu. In A Touch of Sin the director returns to the fully fictional; in fact does more than that and turns to the semi-generic. If Jia's first features like Pickpocket and Unknown Pleasures indicated realist principles of minimal action, A Touch of Sin starts on an action sequence, with a character bumped off. But Jia wants to create a deliberate curdle between the reality of contemporary China, and the generic containment of the modern world by modern cliche. In this opening scene a lone motorcyclist travels along the road and a couple of thugs on the side of it run after him telling him to stop. A third stands in front blocking his way. As the motorcyclist halts, the camera elaborately semi-circles around him, a shot that goes back at least as far as Sergio Leone and is commonly used in superhero films. He then shoots the first in the head, a second in the chest and the third takes off before taking a bullet in the back. The scene is generic in various ways: firstly in the shot choices that show the two guys chasing him before revealing the third up front, secondly evident in the quoted shot, and thirdly in the very situation. These three thugs are rentaflunkies, the sort of figures we see in film who don't have purpose or motivation beyond putting themselves in situations that allow a leading character's prowess to be revealed. But then Jia backs away from the character, later revealing him to be a man in straitened circumstances in mainland China, but a supporting player in the film to the lives of others, especially Zhao Tao's character, who like the other leading characters in the film, will commit an act of violence in generic style, but whose life has been filled out with a different emphasis altogether. To give some idea of the film's curdling effect Zhao for much of the movie isn't very far removed from Monica Vitti in an Antonioni film, before turning into someone out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Yet curdled realism has for quite a while interested Jia, evident in the cartoon interludes in The World, and a UFO lifting off from the rubble in the half documentary Still Life. Talking of recent Chinese society, Jia says "the speed of these changes has had an unsettling, surreal effect. For example, in The World, the World Park setting in Beijing is itself a fantasy; the first time I visited, I was disoriented by all those replicas of monuments from all over the world concentrated into such a small space. It was as if I had entered a fairyland. I learned that people's lives within that space are also quite surreal. " (Film Comment)
Though there are other filmmakers coming out of Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has easily become most the respected, and is perceived as the most demanding. Whether it happens to be Tropical Malady telling two apparently completely different stories held together by the flimsiest of thematic underpinning, or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives, where the talking animals are given no explanation, Weerasethakul is very far away from the three act structure proposed by many a script guru (think Robert McKee or Syd Field), or the five act structure Kristin Thompson suggests. Instead we have a certain cinematic hapticity through narrative obscurity. Perhaps one of the problems with script-oriented cinema is that the feel of the film is constantly surrendered to the sense of the film: a narrational common sense that asks us to predict event rather than encounter the very senses the film activates.
Obviously such a relationship with sound and image that escapes narrative convention is vital to experimental film, where narrative absence leads to sensorial gain. A film like Tony Conrad's sixties work The Flicker is an extreme example of this: no more than the flicker of film on the screen with no images at all beyond white and black film passing through the projector. It creates an intense experience of flickering, as if one chose to blink at a white wall for sixteen minutes. A title at the beginning warns that the work can cause epilepsy and should be watched with a physician in attendance. This is the extreme end of a cinema of the senses rather than a cinema of sense, but Weerasthakul by asking us to absorb his films as audio-visual experiences that defy easy narrative coordinates leaves the viewer dazed and dazzled, with enough story to create a desire for its telling whilst the director resists the need to tell. This isn't experimental cinema; it is a cinematic tantalus, dangling in front of us narrative possibilities without feeling obliged to bring them to given conclusions.
Yet this isn't at all like the aforementioned Guerin's work either. In The City of Sylvia has an ostensible coherence that allows easily for a projective dimension, evident when we see the central character in the cafe. But in Uncle Boonmee..., Tropical Malady and also Syndromes and a Century, Weerasthakul 'mindbends': he demands one accepts inexplicability rather than being able to accommodate the possibility of indifference. If someone watches a dedramatized work with minimal plotting, they might not care to impose a reading onto the film, but that is different from a film that insists that it can't be comprehended without one. There might be very little Weerasethakul has in common with David Lynch and Raoul Ruiz, but they all mindbend one into an act of perceptual contortion. Others, like Abbas Kiarostami, Lisando Alonso (though we notice a shift in his recent Juaja) and Guerin don't. This doesn't mean that there won't be pressing enigmas in, say, Kiarostami's Close-Up, Alonso's Liverpool and Guerin's Train of Shadows, but the plot won't be unhinged, loosened from its diegetic moorings as another usurps it. Speaking of the director's work, Ben Walters says [of Syndromes and a Century] "Like 'Blissfully Yours' and 'Tropical Malady', his latest film is a reverie in two parts, each subtly reworking, challenging and reinforcing the other. (Apichatpong, a student of Buddhism, has compared the technique to reincarnation.)" (Time Out)
There have always been films that will 'kill' their story and start again: changing focus and reshifting audience perspective, from Psycho to The Place Beyond the Pines, but the contortions Weerasthakul and others practice, do not create the coherent segue that allows the story to start again without rational coordinates being called into question. This is a reincarnative irrationalism, a little like in Lost Highway, where a man is imprisoned for murdering his wife and morphs into someone else in his cell before getting released as an innocent new man.
Like Turkish film, Filipino cinema has a director who casts a long shadow on what would have been seen internationally as a minor filmmaking country, and, like Guney, Lino Brocka was imprisoned for his political beliefs. His shadow isn't only aesthetic. it is also moral, and If many filmmakers in the west fret over anxiety of influence as aesthetic gargantuasm they are dwarved by, in countries with a history of strongly oppressive regimes this is also socio-politcal awareness that art for art's sake is a luxury not easily afforded. As Lav Diaz says, of making films, "At the same time, you integrate the issue of responsibility. Not just doing things because you want to do it. You have to be very responsible. There is the ethical issue." (The Art(s) of Slow Cinema). While Raya Martin (with the intriguing Independencia), Brillante Mendoza (whose Lola is a stunningly vivid account of an old lady struggling through a fast-paced Manila) and others constitute a wave, it is Lav Diaz who is becoming the key figure of the movement, a filmmaker who is known not only for the length of his takes but also the length of his films. The long-take filmmaker might test the patience of the viewer, but that is a different problem from testing the capacity of someone sitting in one place for a very long time. Diaz's films can run to over six hundred minutes. Matt Hughes in the 'Lav Diaz Retrospective' offers a chart showing the varying lengths of the director's films. Yet while it might seem beside the point to discuss film length, as if somehow too obviously taking into account the viewing experience and not enough the experience of the film, nevertheless the notion of the long take in a shorter film can lead to a quite different response. A lengthy shot in a hundred and twenty minute film might lead us to think that the film is wasting its time, while the long take in a film that runs to six or seven hours is wasting our time. Most films don't waste our time in this sense: two hours is the time we usually give over to the film experience, and then we may feel frustrated with how the film has utilised those 120 minutes. But a film which runs to three of four times the usual length is cutting into our time as we might have to put a day of our life aside to watch it.
It is as though Diaz is well aware that he is generating a different type of contract from simply a long take filmmaker, knowing that if someone is willing to invest many hours of their time on such an experience, then the long take loses its pressure. Even the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who talked of the rhythm of the shot over its component structure, was well aware that music and narrative were still contained within a temporal experience not so radically different from Hollywood et al. Every one of Tarkovsky's films is shorter than Lawrence of Arabia or Schindler's List. Yet there is no pressure to the latter films because their length is easily contained by their narrational demands. It is as though Tarkovsky acknowledges this demand not as something he must accept but as something he must deny, and this leads to the pressure of the shot which is then ameliorated by the rhythm. (Sculpting in Time) This is true also of the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopolous. Someone would be much more inclined to complain about the length of his shots partly because of their containment within a film that would usually have a strong story. Can the same expectation quite be placed on films like the eight hour Hitler: a Film from Germany, the thirteen hour Out 1, or Diaz's eight hour Melancholia? The issue of the shot is no longer the problem: it has been shifted onto the issue of filmic length and not shot length.
To explain this a little further let us think of scenes from Melancholia and Florentina Hubaldo CTE. In the first film there are long takes early on of a young woman walking down a street. It can feel like an aimless shot that we are aimlessly watching, aware that there are more than seven hours of the film still to go, but perhaps this is a little different from an aimless shot in a film that runs for only two. In the shorter film we might sense that the movie ought to get on with it, that it has created a limited temporal space rather like a lecture where the professor has to fit in quite a lot of information within an allocated time. Yet the feature that runs to eight is closer to a conversation that demands its own pace, its own durational expectation similar to a talk that goes on late into the night. This doesn't mean it ought to be aimless; more that it needs to be exploratory, finding its own rhythm without the narrational pressure of the shot and instead absorbs the meditative dimension of the image. Of course, part of the genius evident in Tarkovsky lies in his capacity to achieve this level of meditative force in films that are actually not that long - Mirror is less than two hours, Nostalgia a hundred and thirty minutes - and an argument could be made for the work to be at its most brilliant it should work within the confines of the conventional temporal expectations of the narrative film, rather than defying it completely by how it uses time.
Yet the elongated temporality of Diaz can create surprises out of nothing. In another scene in Melancholia we see in the first forty seconds the camera as if establishing its own shot before cutting to a man crouching by the river the establishing shot locates. In the first shot there is no sound, in the second it is muffled. But when the film cuts again, it's abrupt for several reasons, and these are associated with the film's capacity for lengthiness. Firstly because we can't predict the cut. In the first shot the character crouching has long since left the frame before the film cuts, secondly when the film cuts he is tiny within the far right of the frame in this following shot. We have to find him within the image, especially when there is another character on a boat much nearer the centre of the shot that we might feel more inclined to allow our attention to fall upon. But mostly it resides in the sound as the film cuts from the quiet of the river to the forcefulness of the rain. The film holds to the image of water, but creates very different effects in its use. What we have here is the sense that the filmmaker can expect us to take a few seconds to find a character in the shot, to expect their lengthy absence from the image, and to acknowledge the abrupt shifts in the soundscape partly because of the enormity of length. In Florentina CTE one characters stands in the street her arms outstretched while nothing is heard on the soundtrack for several minutes, before a sharp cut emphasizes the sound of a carnival. These abrupt audio shifts can of course be done in more narratively focused films, and we can think of Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter as two brilliant examples. In the first Scorsese cuts from La Motta talking quietly to his wife as she lies half asleep to the middle of a boxing match; in The Deer Hunter from chatting and drinking in a bar to the middle of a village attack. Both are wonderful yet also very dramatic: they are exemplary scenes of changing the cinematic pace through formal means meeting narrative demand. Diaz defies this and creates quite literally something out of nothing. The sound shift surprises us, but there has been no underpinning narrative reason for it doing so.
Again, viewers might see that just as Tarkovsky compresses time and shows his genius for reinventing the temporal within conventional duration, Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino show their genius for utilising the formal properties of film for the telling of the story. Maybe there is some justification in this: that Diaz's films can go nowhere, and we are justified in our feelings of frustration. But rather than turning this into a categorical judgement, it is better surely, and initially, to notice that Diaz can through immense length create the non-diegetic surprise: the shock that is not narrational but chiefly formal. Those silent to sound shifts in Melancholia and Florentina Hubaldo CTE need the long lull we have into silence to then provoke us again with sound, and this is just one area where Diaz's experiment with duration can create at the very least surprise, sometimes mild shock.
We end on Diaz because he seems to encapsulate better than anyone else (without suggesting he is a better director than anyone else) the contrarian impulses of an art cinema refusing the demands placed upon filmmakers by the model of filmmaking more than ever controlled by Hollywood. This doesn't make Diaz a director making films of antithesis: as if his purpose is simply to counter the pace and purpose of Hollywood with the paceless purposelessness of an art cinema that deliberately denies the pleasure too easily achieved in the mainstream. No, it is more that he is asking how can we remove many of the presuppositions evident in the filmmaking experience, and one way to do this is not to remove story (as Andy Warhol proposed in films like Sleep and Empire), but to keep attenuating it, stretching it and finding new sensations in the attenuation, evident for example in the way he uses sound to create a surprise without remotely aping the immediacy within slowness of a Scorsese or a Cimino. There might be filmmakers whose work one admires much more than Diaz's, whose films possess an aesthetic unity and tension far greater than the Filipino director's, films that we have talked about here including Aurora, Dogtooth, La vie de Jesus, La vie nouvelle, Destiny, In the City of Sylvia and Seul contre tous. But Diaz's work threatens us with a new conception of film time more than most, and it would be critically naive to ignore it. Most of the films here are flying in the face of formal predictability, and Diaz's work more than that of many others.
© Tony McKibbin