(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)
Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz)
One of my few largely random choices this year, this is a broodingly exotic drama about a couple (Emmanuelle Beart and Rufus Sewell) who lost their son in the 2004 tsunami; still in Thailand, the wife becomes convinced the boy is alive, over the Burmese border. She convinces her husband they should pay a shady character to get them there, and from then on the film reminded me increasingly of Apocalypse Now, although with a very different heart of darkness. Their journey is a deliberately murky mélange of menace, spirituality, spectacular (but not overly dwelled-on) landscapes, swirling river mist, and escalating ill fortune and madness. It’s quite fascinating, although many of the elements seem questionable: the set-up appears rather rushed, the ending fanciful (if impactful), many of the details contrived. Du Welz doesn’t always seem in full control of his apparatus – an early scene in the night of the city feels as if he mounted the camera on the head of a frantic goat and just accepted whatever jumble of images resulted. The beautiful Beart (I said the choice was largely random) is enormously compelling, even if, again, her character’s psychology never completely convinces.
Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski)
Skolimowski was a key figure of the 60’s through the early 80’s – bursting with radical energy out of his native Poland and becoming an exotic wanderer of a kind you seldom see now. His best-known film may be the compelling Deep End, which still turns up on the Scream cable channel occasionally; you might also remember Moonlighting, with Jeremy Irons as a Polish labourer stranded in London. His last work, Ferdyduke, was by most accounts a hodgepodge, and Skolimowski has not directed in the seventeen years since then (he turned up as an actor in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, playing Naomi Watts’ hot-blooded uncle). The new film takes him right back to his roots, to the most unprepossessing Polish locations and characters possible. The protagonist is a sad middle-aged lump of a man, recently out of jail for a rape he didn’t commit, who develops an attachment to a woman living in an adjacent block of nurses’ quarters; at first he spies on her through binoculars, then starts to sneak into her room at night (having fortified her sugar supply with ground-up sleeping pills). It has a wonderfully creepy opening, slyly misleading us about the meaning of certain events, and establishing a feeling of grey, unadorned (but very specifically visualized) dread that persists through much of the film. To digress for a second, I always tend to think of Skolimowski and Roman Polanski as being on the same general page, and I recently rewatched Polanski’s late-90’s thriller The Ninth Gate – where Johnny Depp tracks down the long-buried secret of communing with Satan. I enjoyed the fluidity of it in a way, but I couldn’t stop thinking that Polanski must feel a sense of loss within himself, at how the precise intimations of pain and evil in his best earlier work blanded out into mere glossy artifice. The Pianist subsequently took him somewhat back in the right direction, but he’s a rich international figure now – it’s plainly too late. Skolimowski by contrast, never as feted or scrutinized even at his peak, could yet experience a true artistic revitalization. Four Nights with Anna isn’t quite that – for all its intrigue and impeccable handling (and, almost in the margins, its concise portrait of the continuing limitations and lingering authoritarianism in the post-Communist East), it’s ultimately just too minor I think. But this is one of my favourite things about movies, when the old guys show who’s still in charge.
Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader)
For some reason, I end up mentioning Schrader in this space more than almost any other director – the arc of his career (writing Taxi Driver; directing movies from American Gigolo to Affliction) and his personal travails (born into strict religious fundamentalism; all kinds of obsessions and addictions since then) fascinates me, even though the impact of his films on me is hit and miss. The new film is in the higher echelon of his work, although it’s also easy to criticize. Jeff Goldblum plays a Jewish entertainer who survives the death camp by mimicking a dog for the depraved camp commander (Willem Dafoe) and playing the violin as the victims (even his own wife and daughter) march to the gas chamber. In the 50’s he’s in Israel, frequently institutionalized at a facility in the middle of the desert, where he comes across a boy who imagines himself a dog; this allows Adam a symbolic opportunity to redeem himself, by leading the youth out of his madness. That basic set-up seems forced and unconvincing, but the film contains a lot of grim inventiveness, and Goldblum is as charismatic and inventive as he’s ever been. On the other hand, it’s not clear that Schrader ever fully worked out his attitude on the material – his handling of the material in the camps seems particularly wan, and the ending strikes an odd note. I don’t think the movie will stand as much more than a curio, but it takes on more resonance if viewed as the latest in Schrader’s many portrayals of obsessed, extreme individuals.
Appaloosa (Ed Harris)
Harris’ second film as director (the first was Pollock) is a mostly conventional Western, benefiting from the relative rarity of even conventional Westerns nowadays, and from a few unusual angles on the material. Harris and Viggo Mortensen play two wandering “peacekeepers” engaged to bring order to a small town terrorized by the local bigshot (Jeremy Irons) and his gang. The twists and turns conjure up echoes of virtually every movie ever made in the genre, although only intermittently to the film’s advantage. Harris doesn’t bring much visual distinction to the exercise (compared to Leone); the atmosphere is thin and rather antiseptic (compared to Peckinpah); the occasional humour is shallow and repetitive (compared to Hawks). Most interesting is the arc of the character played by Renee Zellweger - a widow who draws Harris’ affections. She takes on substantially more layering than we expect, and then the movie doesn’t extract the usual price from her either, which sets up an unusual, quite ambiguous ending. It’s good entertainment overall, although a very typical festival choice – no one will ever again be as enthusiastic about it as they were, sight unseen, that glitzy night on the red carpet.
Many say it was a lesser festival this year, but my little piece of it (confined this year to just one or two films every day) worked out as well as I could possibly have hoped for. I’ll especially look forward to seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Story again, but I was very consistently stimulated and stretched, and barely ever bored. So no complaints from me!