Sunday, March 24, 2019

Shallow Us

Us (2019) - Peele
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Jordan Peele's follow up to Get Out is not what I expected. It is still cartoonish in its horror tropes with pop culture references, but it's far more sophisticated than the no justice, no peace poverty porn of the 90s gangsta movies. While the inner city/rural poverty and systematic racism of the powers that be vastly remains in America, it is also true that so called middle class in this country can afford material goods and convenience of the smart phones and cable TV.

Peele, a comedian with his middle class upbringing and films that reflects post-Obama cool nerd sensibility, puts the middle class, African-American Wilson family at the film's center. The film clues you in with the title card in the beginning, saying that there are vast network of underground tunnels in America. It segues into 1986 when MJ still ruled and Hands Across America campaign (one of those celebrity fed kumbaya session to end poverty campaign) adorned the TV tube (if it was We Are the World instead, Us would've been a very different movie).

It's present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and her goofy husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children Zora and Jason start their Summer vacation at their Summer home near Santa Cruz. Adelaide is uneasy about jogging through her childhood memory - she got lost in a Santa Cruz pier in 86', ended up in a haunted house attraction and saw her double in the mirror room. She tells her husband that the experience haunted her whole life and believes her double is still out their to get her. Soon after that, a heavily back-lit family in the manner of Hands Across America style appears at their front yard. And Us becomes a home invasion movie with the doppelgangers trying to kill the Wilsons.

It turns out only Adelaide's double can speak, albeit stuttering, out of breath fashion, telling her that it is a reckoning long in the making. After they manage to get away, they find their friends, more affluent white family, also had been attacked and murdered by their doubles. The spotty TV signal tells that it's a nationwide phenom. This is where Us fails to be more relevant.

Smart and quick witted, Peele knows when he needs to be obvious - title Us also doubles as US, as above so below/mirror image concept, a guy holding Jeremiah 11:11 sign, NWA's Fuck da Police blasts from Alexa like device (Police is 14 minutes away) in a pivotal moment, and when to be subtle - ok, not really. There are clever moments like Adelaide telling her white friends that black people don't have time to do frivolous shit (I forget what the conversation was about), suggesting the larger context that black movies can't afford melodramas because that would be a luxury. Or Gabe impulsively buy a used boat which is named B-yacht'chy. Also liked that Peele didn't overlit his actors, especially Nyong'o whose very dark complexion gives her more time to act with her expressive eyes.

But I don't believe allegory and horror genre are enough to tell the whole story of racial AND economic injustice in this country. And I don't think whatever the elevation the genre has been garnering as high art, it can't express the corruption of humanity by capitalism wholely.

I always thought if there was a shake up in social order in this country, it would be borne out of the racial injustices, not the economic one. Have we passed that stage of overcoming racism already? Is it really possible that Bernie's populism has a real chance to win because he combines that rare racial, cultural social class divide? Or am I just still a pessimistic old man overly cautious? Us isn't a masterpiece. Peele taps into the zeitgeist and makes it entertaining, but his films still stays as a Twilight Zone level, safe entertainment.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

László Nemes' Sunset is a Cerebral, Dazzling Study of Chaotic Times

Napszállta/Sunset (2018) - Nemes
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László Nemes' follow up to haunting holocaust drama Son of Saul, Sunset is yet another period film that is an equally challenging, equally powerful, heady masterpiece. And it’s still early in the year, but it’s definitely a film to beat.

It tells a story of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young heiress to her famous hat-maker parents who perished in a fire. She came to Budapest, to her parents' hat-making showroom/shop to get a job as a lowly milliner. But the manager of the shop Oszkár (played by great Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Police Adjective and Snow Piercer) doesn't want her there, saying the city is not for a country girl like her. But Írisz is determined to stay and claim her birthright.

What’s intriguing about Sunset is its setting and specific time period. The year is 1913, not long after the industrial revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, hurtling rapidly toward social and political chaos that caused World War I, the war to end all wars, where 16 million souls perished. It was also the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Soon Írisz finds herself in the chaotic social upheaval where socialists, communists, anarchists, monarchists, ultra-nationalists and cultists all want to get a piece of the action. Violent confrontations spill out on to the streets and dangers and mysteries are around every corner, where nothing is what it seems and everything is deeply layered.

Írisz finds the family secret that her brother she thought she never had is still alive and might be the leader of an underground violent anarchist group eager to eliminate who he deems as members of elite class, including Oszkàr. Does she choose to follow her misplaced allegiance to Oszkàr or her mysterious long lost brother and his murderous plot to topple social order?

Nemes keeps his Son of Saul’s subjective perspective here, focusing closely on Írisz on steadicam, following her exclusively. It makes a startlingly absorbing theater experience. As well as the visuals, Nemes put an emphasis on creating soundscapes that reflects the tumultuous times with disorienting, off the frame whispers, conversations and an altogether ominous soundtrack.

Sunset juxtaposes a society on the brink of self-destruction with something trivial and decadent as a designer hat shop. There is something creepy about all the beautiful, young women hat-makers preparing for the dance ball for the crown prince and princess and be chosen as a personal milliner and move to Vienna. Extremely inquisitive, Írisz tricks everyone into taking the spot of the chosen milliner and witness the rather Eyes Wide Shut-like ritual of the Austrian royals, full of conspirators and cultists.

Clueless about the whirlwind of her surroundings, but ever so curious and strong willed, Írisz is a proto-feminist in the making, bravely throwing herself into the unknown, time and time again, as an unreliable guide for us to make heads and tails out of what we are seeing and hearing and closely experiencing what it’s like to live on the eve of greatest self-destruction us humans ever perpetuated on ourselves (at that time).

Írisz tries to keep up with the rapid flow of this mercilessly changing world in order to not to get swallowed up. There is something defiant about her choices and actions throughout the film. Her endless curiosity and determination to see the world head on are something to be admired.

Nemes doesn't give an easy answer to any of these intrigues. Instead, he makes us work for it. And it’s damn well worth it. As the title indicates, the film tells a lot about human hubris and rightfully reflects on the decadent, chaotic world we lead toward the edge of extinction right now. One can read Sunset as a warning that history repeats itself. But it’s the last segment that also shows the endurance of human spirit. Let’s hope we are strong enough to withstand what’s coming for us.

Sunset opens New York and Los Angeles on 3/22. Sony Classics is releasing it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Interview: Laszlo Nemes on His Challenging, Mesmerizing New Film Sunset

Laszlo Nemes
I saw Hungarian director/writer László Nemes' sophomore film Sunset at this year's Film Comment Selects series and was blown away by it. It is just as strong as his phenomenal debut film Son of Saul, a riveting Holocaust drama that brought him awards and international recognition. Layered, complex and technically brilliant, Sunset is a challenging film that will leave an indelible mark on many year end lists as one of the best films of 2019.

I missed the chance to talk to him in New York due to his flu symptoms, but he graciously granted a skype interview at a later date. This is the how the interview went down:
So SUNSET is co-written by Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier. How was the writing process for this particular film?

Well it was strange because it’s a Hungarian film, the language is Hungarian and we were speaking French and writing it in English. We were under the influence of many languages I would say. But the thing is that Clara speaks Hungarian and Matthieu also spent quite a lot of time in Hungary. So we were bunch of outcasts in a way and eager to cooperate on the second film. Good thing is that we don’t have the exactly the same aptitudes - I am better in scene design, Clara is better at interactions and character’s psychology and Matthieu’s better at structure, so that create this back and forth dynamics that this film required.

It was a quite a lengthy process and we also had to adapt to certain situations, for example, one of the supporting actresses left the first day of the shoot so we had to change, as we were shooting, many aspects of the scenes. Writing script requires constant nourishing and development.

What I hear is that you conceived this film while you were shooting SON OF SAUL, is that right?

Yes. Yes even before that, actually. I wanted to make a film about a young woman at the turn of the century with her personal fate was reflecting the birth of the century and the turmoil of civilization.

Just for the audience who might not be familiar with the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, 1913, can you give us a little bit of a background?

Well I can’t really. I’d just like to say that we don’t need a manual for this film. You know people usually think that for historical films, period films they need some sort of manual or explanation but our approach to the film was not political, not societal - the ones that you recreate sort of historical facts or atmosphere. We wanted it to be about this one person going through this turmoil, not really seeing the cause of it or seeing it through from beginning to the end.

I feel that history takes place and you don’t have the control over the situation. That being said, that’s what is in the beginning of the film in the title card that this takes place before WWI in a civilization, in a country, in a kingdom, with many nationalities and many languages. That we are in a world of dual kingdom where multiple ethnic groups coexisted. I guess you can say that was the world full of promises but we knew what happened. WWI and then WWII that brought us the sad end of those promises and the end of civilization, so to speak. So that was all you need to know, really.

That’s what I liked about the film. Just going in there without any kind of specific prior knowledge about the region, but it was invigorating for me watching this and thinking about all the things that are going on around the character of Ìrisz (played by Julie Jakab).

Wanted to ask you about the consistency of the subjective view of the world through one central character. How you film this is very distinctive. Is this always the case when you do a film?

That’s how I did it for Son of Saul and Sunset, but that doesn’t mean I will always do it that way. Just that I am really interested in the limitations of human beings as opposed to giving an impression of a god-like perspective.

Ah, I see.

More and more I have that impression in cinema, through television and the internet. Multiplication of angles, you know, high angle shots that give the audience a voyeur’s position, giving you that safe distances at the same time giving god-like power over the whole situation you are seeing in front of you. It gives you a false sense of power.

I just wanted to go back to the core of human perception. That’s what really interests me because that’s how we really experience the world and there are limitations in our perceptions. We are in the labyrinth of our lives. We don’t always have the key to see the world. I wanted to approach this film with this person who doesn’t have the key to the understanding of the world and how she copes with that. There is this rebellion in that I wanted to make the viewer out of the comfort zone a little bit.

Is the technology advancement like VR experience of any interest to you?

Well I don’t know. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t exist. I’m just saying that our brain is a way of virtual experience and there is much more to explore before we all become slaves of the technology. (we laugh) And I do think we are becoming slaves to technology and to the computers, you know. I’m not sure if you saw the film on 35mm at the Lincoln Center or…

Yes, I did.

OK, so you see what difference in experience can be when you have the chemical, physical, mechanical grounding in the world as opposed to everything being virtual. I think it’s a serious question and I am worried about that.

Is that why you continue to shoot on film?

Yes. I really like the look and feel of film. That’s what I really think how cinema should defend itself rather than trying to be television and beat it at that ground game. It’s not gonna happen. I truly believe that shooting on film and seeing it on the big screen is something you can’t replicate at home. People feel the proximity of film when they see it in theaters.

As you mentioned, Ìrisz doesn’t know what exactly going on. But she is fearless - she just jumps in to whatever is out there. That’s why I was fascinated by the character. I know that she was in SON OF SAUL. Is that how you cast Julie Jakab in SUNSET?

Yes I knew her and I wanted to work with her. The secrets that existed in her own personality, the sorrows that she has in her own life - she had major catastrophes in her own life, that I think she conveyed through this invisible link to the audience. I think that resonates in her character. Ìrisz has a hard time understanding herself and that she remains a mystery and I think Julie also has been a mystery to me. It’s not a performance based acting that I was looking for. It was something more invisible in a way that creates much more…I don’t know, ‘metaphysical link’ to the audience. It may not be satisfying in the usual acting way with the good moment, with the right moment while watching the film. But she, I think, creates an aura that goes beyond the dimension of the film that can resonate after the viewing.

It’s in her eyes. I could see it in her searching glances.

That’s good.

She is great. But one thing that struck me was that how Jakab could tie SON OF SAUL and SUNSET together somehow. That her character in SON OF SAUL could be the daughter of Ìrisz. Was it intentional?

I think it was more unconscious in retrospect. It is interesting to be pointed out as I said at the Q & A, that this girl in this beautiful hat in this beautiful setting has the same face in the most desperate human situation in WWII. Yet how we arrived there is something of a mystery. Anyway it creates another reflection on the part of the viewer when they see both films.

It really worked, for me, at least.

Another great actor Vlad Ivanov known for his Romanian films (FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS AND TWO DAYS, POLICE, ADJECTIVE and SNOWPIERCER) is a big part of SUNSET. How did you cast him? I didn’t know he spoke Hungarian.

It’s interesting. Vlad had to learn his lines.

Really, wow.

He really did. It was a heroic, tremendous effort and I am extremely grateful for that. He is an incredible actor. He has an incredibly disciplined way of acting. I wanted to work with him for a while. In a way, I wrote the part for him. I really thought from the beginning that he was the right person for this role.

He also has a layers that are difficult to decipher and I really wanted to have this imbalance for the viewer not to be able to categorize him or put him on one side or another, same as Irisz can’t be easily categorized. It was a good opportunity for me to put the viewers in that position.

I always take each actor as a person and work with that energy of this one person. What I learned from Bela Tarr is that we need to find the person before you find the actor.

With your two films, your visual style widely regarded as arresting and mesmerizing. But the sound design in Sunset is nothing short of brilliant as well. How important is the sound for you when you make a film?

It’s very important. For me it’s half of the film. I really believe that. I also believe that sound is not just there to replicate what is already present in the image. We can go beyond that into the invisible, psychological realm and also into the spirit of the film through the soundscape. We spent almost 6 month on the sound alone. Tamás (Zányi, the Sound designer for both Son of Saul and Sunset) who is a loyal companion to me and I wanted to create layers of sound around Irisz where the she loses herself in the turmoil and whirlwind of visuals but she would find more layers, new layers to lose herself in, as if she were in the labyrinth. That’s what
Sunset’s soundscape suggests and reinforces. That way we can really have an access to her mind. It contains the very conflictual elements in her being and in her perception of the world.

There is a certain finality in naming the film SUNSET. I know it was about possibly the end of civilization as we knew it. I can totally see the relevance of that in the world we are living right now - with the rise of nationalism, Basket of Kittens and chaotic political climate globally. I am wondering if you consciously decided to make this film now.

I’d say I am very sensitive to the path that our world is on right now. I feel the sense of despair in our civilization for quite some time. I tried to go beyond the political level but there’s this metaphysical vibrations that I can feel in the world. I feel that we are petrified by our own capabilities. I don’t think mankind was able to assess, really look in to, itself. We fail to assess the potential for evil that lies within itself although the recent history, say, past 100 years or so, or take the 20th century was horrendous. Then we can see that there’s not much for optimism. Even with all the development and technological advancement have not created more humanistic society but only self-destruction or increasing desire for self-destruction. It’s always looming and I really feel that. And I guess that semi-consciously wanted to reflect on my films.

So what would be the next step for you? What are you planning?

I think I might film something in English at some point. I am looking forward to expanding myself and find other approaches to the film. It is too early to tell but am writing several things at once. I can’t talk about anything specific but I will do something in English.

Sounds good. Looking forward to it.

Sunset opens 3/22 in New York and Los Angeles.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Artist's Hell Realized

Vargtimmen/Hour of the Wolf (1968) - Bergman
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Vargtimmen tells a story of an artist struggling with isolation, paranoia and madness. The title refers to the night hours when most people die and also when most babies are born. In the black card title sequence, we hear the film crew getting the shot ready. The first scene is Alma (Liv Ullman), the pregnant wife of a recluse painter Johan (Max von Sydow), staring directly into the camera, addressing that her husband went missing. The film being the-post Persona era Bergman, it's filled to the brim with surrealist images and dream logic. Visuals are often frightening - as Johan struggles to ward off a feral child on the beach which is filmed in extreme high contrast and ends up killing the kid and dumping his body in the water. And a grotesque dinner party that reveals Johan's scandalous past and devolves into a string of ghastly sights involving an old woman pulling off her face and eyeballs, cross-dressing and necrophilia even.

It's an odd film that doesn't really give any clear statement or answers directly that Bergman wrestles with usually. It seems more personal, dealing with personal demons therefore more obscure in its presentation. It's still a very interesting experiment.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Interview: Jia Zhangke on Gangster Genre and Ash is Purest White

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With his sprawling gangster epic melodrama Ash is Purest White opening this Thursday in New York, Jia Zhangke, the master chronicler of changing China, was in town and I was lucky enough to snag an interview. Spanning 17 years, Ash is a culmination of all of Jia's work, once again, starring his wife/muse, the great Zhao Tao in a performance that gathers more power and poignancy as the film goes along. The film ended up near the top of my favorite list for 2018 and everyone needs to see this beautiful film. So without further a do:

It seems you are going back to the long form storytelling with ASH IS PUREST WHITE, harkening back to your old films like PLATFORM or UNKNOWN PLEASURES rather than episodic storytelling of your past two films, A TOUCH OF SIN and MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART.

So first, thinking about doing a film about underworld (Jianghu), not only as a subject but as a genre. What attracted me about those jianghu films, is about the philosophy and their codes of conduct into personal relationship, cultivation of sense of loyalty. These are the values that I wanted to examine but did’t want to somehow pinpoint one particular era or one particular time pertaining my youth or contemporary time. What I wanted to examine was how these values and philosophy of the underworld evolved and changed and eroded in these long stretch of time so I can explore the connections between these- how it had changed and shifted to pursue wealth and power in the mainstream society. That’s the reason why I decided to not only narrating this particular underworld genre and motif but also long time span of 17 years in order for me to do so.

And another point of departure is I remember that when I was young and growing up in Shanxi Province, there was a big brother character, like a Brother Bin (Liao Fan of Black Coal Thin Ice) in the film in my own neighborhood. I remember that he was strikingly handsome and very masculine and well versed in cultivating that kind of personal bond and resolving conflict. He made a huge impression on me growing up. Later when I went back home from College I saw him middle aged, squatting by the street eating a bowl of noodles. All his underlings and brothers were gone. So I think that not only examining this particular underworld genre portrayal of how they evolved and how the values have been eroded, I also wanted to see how time change and change an individual such as this particular case the head of the gang and how this person changed internally but also externally in terms of appearance. How this face aged through time. Those are the two elements I wanted to examine.

It’s interesting you say the because the big part of the film belong to Zhao Tao’s character. In some strange magic she hasn’t changed not only physically but she had this inner strength and it’s her who goes to jail for and rescues Brother Bin at the end. She was the only one who was loyal to him all throughout those years. How did you come up with that character?

I wanted to make a comparison gender-wise in jianghu and also society in general. China is a very male oriented society and that kind of principles we used to have have changed. Male population seems to be more inclined to pursue those wealth and power and lose themselves in it. And on the other hand, the female population ironically are the ones holding on to those traditional values and cultures and those principles they didn’t lose. I wanted to create those contrast in current society. I’m not saying that the past was better. I‘m just showing what is changed in society.

The film is French co-production. How was working with the French crew?

In terms of collaboration with my french partner MK2, the distribution company which I worked with past 3 films. So iI do think that gave me more options in terms of finding the talents and the people I can work with from the French side. For this particular film, the cinematographer was Eric Gautier collaborating with me for the first time. Sound mixers and also the hair and makeup were all french artists. In the past I tend to have a very close-knit crew from China. It was not so much about the funding and investment on the film that was important. It was more to do with creative team that I can pull from French side. I enjoyed a lot more that collaboration.

Was it a challenge to create that period in terms of production design?

The challenge was how to recreate this period that was seen in 2001. Because the people back in the day the way they look and their faces were completely different from how people look now. When doing the casting process I needed to make sure that I find the faces that had a bit of wear and tear, that show the ravages of time and hard work. They tended to have darker complexion and so on. Today’s young people, even if they are from the same province, same county, same hometown, they have a lighter skin tone with smoother surface - hamburger face that I constantly joke about- well-fed, well- nurtured and well protected in terms of sunblock and all that. So how I’m going to choose the right faces - actors and actresses and extras. So when I was actually positioning my main characters with all the makeup and movie magic, I was very concerned about how they would look believable so people will say yes these are indeed from 2001. So restaging of it was pretty challenging.

What’s interesting to me is that you are retracing your steps of your previous films be it Shanxi Province or Three Gorges Dam. How much have they changed since then?

So in terms of revisiting those places I previously shot my films in, instead of change of scenery that I witnessed that astonished me, it was how much it hasn’t changed for 17 years. For example, a lot of public spaces that were there are still standing, shockingly, compared with most of the 1st tier and 2nd tier mega cities- tend to demolish everything and restart completely. So the skyline would be completely different. Places like Datong and Three Gorges Dam, 17 years ago and when I made Still Life, many of the buildings and public spaces are still there and still very much the same. So many feels that as a country, China is a fast changing society and of progress. At the same time, it’s not balanced in urban city and in rural areas. So a lot of people are left behind and they never had a chance to catch up with mainstream progress that’s been so visible to the world.

Qiao (Zhao Tao’s character) in the first part of the film, when she bid farewell to her father at the train station and also the worker’s dormitory in the background - those were already there when I made unknown Pleasures in 2001, so I was so shocked. You see it a little weathered and can see the traces of time, but they are still there!

The question I had about Qiao is that she had a chance to leave everything behind and go west (Xinjiang) with this venture capitalist that she met on the train. But she doesn’t. I wonder about the choices that she made.

I think after breakup with her long time lover, she decides that it’s time to make a change, to break away from that past relations and trying to find the new one. It just happens to be this chance encounter with that person. It was almost like a very very short fling. But after that experience that she realizes that to go with him, to Xinjiang in this case, she would be removing herself completely from the underworld that she still very much see herself a member of. So she at the end makes the final decision. At the end of the film she says “I am jianghu and you are not.” She is actually telling this to Bin. It’s that spirit of jianghu she is abiding by, not any men.

You told me in 2014 that you might be doing a period piece about Chinese journeyman traveling West first, Europe and then South America. Is it still happening? If not, what’s next for you?

It’s not anywhere in preparation stage. It’s still one of the films I very much want to make. The next film we are preparing for is a period piece set in the late Qing dynasty. It’s going to be Wuxia genre film.

I am very much looking forward to that!


My review of Ash is Purest White

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Volcanic Desire to Live

Stromboli (1950) - Rossellini
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Karin (Ingrid Bergman), a war refugee of Lithuanian descent in an internment camp in Italy flirts with a young Italian soldier to get out of the camp. They get married and move to the soldier's hometown Stromboli, an isolated volcanic island where its very religious, very conservative unwelcoming inhabitants greet her. Worldly and ambitious Karin finds the first day that there is absolutely nothing in Stromboli that she likes. Its barren landscape and rudimentary stone houses and old men hanging around her home profoundly depress her. Her young husband turns out to be nothing but a brute too, slapping her around and locking her in the house. She plans to escape, even if it means seducing half the village and climb across the volcanic mountain to get to the other side of the island.

It's interesting to see Rossellini's neorealist approach with non-actors and almost documentary-like sequences clash with sheer star power of Bergman is an interesting mix. But I don't mind. Bergman is magnetic.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Interview: Mia Hansen-Løve on Her India Set, Daring New Film Maya

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Mia Hansen-Løve is one of my very favorite directors working today. Her infinitely wise films about time passing, beautiful characterization of people who inhabits her films and her willingness to always expand her cinematic universe at whatever the cost, leave me in awe. Her new film Maya isn't an exception to this rule. Structurally daring, logistically ambitious but always heartfelt, the filmmaker is reaching a new height. I got a chance to talk to her while she was in town for Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Stuck in traffic and suffering from a cold, I was about ten minutes late for our appointment but she was so accomodating and kind to me. I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

So here is how our conversation went:

Throughout your filmography you try to do something different and something bigger, grander in scale each time. I like that about you.

Oh thanks for saying that. Not many people notices that.

Gabriel, one of the main characters in MAYA, played by Roman Kolinka, is a war journalist. Is he based on anybody?

Not really. I got some of… my inspiration from a former hostage but it stops when the trip to India starts. The only thing you could say is his story was inspired by true events and it has to do with captivity but film doesn’t deal so much with that. I mean it’s just the starting point of the film. But this trip to India to me is mostly an inner journey. And the film is really about invisible transformation... of not anyone in particular, maybe only pertains to me, in a more indirect way. But the character is not certainly inspired by someone in particular.

Speaking of something that is more personal and has more direct relationship with you, does India and especially Goa, have special connection to you?

It does. I’ve been traveling to India for the last ten years or so. I’ve been there almost every year. I’ve written one of my films there. But I’ve been attracted to india since I was in my 20s. Of course it had to do with me wanting to move on and do something different and so on. But I actually needed it, both as a person and as and artist. And at some point it made sense to me to try to confront my sensibility to India. It wasn’t like I wanted to make a film about or taking place in India then make up the story. This story for the film came to my mind first.

Right.

The story and characters came first and I thought it would make sense at this point, especially after Things to Come which was a such a ‘home movie’ in a way. (laughs) In another way, but you know what I mean. I wanted to go to a very different place and take that risk. I think risk somehow always excites me too. It was a way to get close to India and to go further in my relationship to India and not stay on the surface of it. Because you go there as a tourist, even if you go many times, it’s hard to go beyond the surface, unless you live there and….

But I thought to myself what’s the best way to know india better? Maybe to shoot a film there. That’s a great way to experience the place - to know places and people and experience things that I would never get to do otherwise. It’s challenging but also very exciting. I think it’s a very good way to go deeper into different culture and a country.

Did it feel like that when you were shooting part of EDEN, in New York?

I think all of my films somehow have been ways to get deeper into certain world. There are never documentary because I am really into fiction but somehow there was always this dimension in my films using fiction and making films as a way to further my experience and my knowledge. I think that’s what films should do anyway.

Right. Definitely. I have to tell you that EDEN is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s a masterpiece and I really really love that film.

Oh thank you. I will tell my brother (Sven, whose DJ career was the basis for Eden) will be happy to hear that.

How was shooting in India?

I think it was both amazing, extremely how do you say…joyful and also very tough. I mean it was actually amazing to be so far away to work with Indian people, to work with an Indian actress - just to lose myself and Immerse into such a different world. I got so much from it and I feel I am so much stronger since I made that film.

Gotcha.

For me there is before and after Maya. So the experience will stay forever with me. But on the other hand it was tough. When I started shooting I was already exhausted. both physically and mentally. I had tons of health issues at that time.

Oh sorry to hear that.


Nothing really bad but you know when you have that and when you are about to shoot a movie in India, it's not the best moment to have these kind of issues. Mentally also because the film was so difficult to finance. I felt huge responsibility toward my producers. I felt I had to not to do any overtime…, I'm always pushing for time. I felt I had great weight on my shoulders because all the risk they had taken to make that film. Maybe that was the most difficult thing on that shoot - this guilty feeling on some level. (laughs) But months after shooting, looking back what stays the strongest is a what unique experience it was.

It’s a unique movie too in a lot of aspects.

Oh thank you.

How did you find this beautiful actress, Aarshi Banerjee, who played Maya?

It took me some time to find Aarshi. We spent months looking for girls mostly in Mumbai but also around Mumbai, Maharashtra, but also in Goa and even in London, because we had some connections there, so we were looking though the Indian community- I was looking for a girl who speaks English. So it was casing but also in Facebook and social media. In many videos I got, I thought the girls were too much like actresses and too elegant. And I received this video of Aarshi where she filmed herself in a living room with a dog and she was so raw… I mean on the one hand she is extremely beautiful, in my head the character had to be, but on top of that she was so direct and so authentic. She moved me a lot with her maturity and depth and authority but at the same time she is also very much rooted…how do you say in…

Grounded.


Grounded, you know? she is really into her Indian reality. She’s not like ideal or romantic figure. she’s a real girl. And because my character Gabriel is a such a ghost when he arrives in India, I felt it was important that she shouldn’t be a ghost. She would have to be very real. I love the fact that she has a very timeless beauty but she also has a very contemporary quality to her. I think I used that a lot in her character.

That makes a lot of sense because I was wondering about the title because it could well have been Gabriel. Because the film starts with him and it’s his journey. But talking to you it makes sense that it’s called MAYA.

I think it is a poetic choice. The film doesn’t have to… the film is not a summery or… The title of the film is Maya and it says something. She brings something essential to the film and yes the main character is definitely Gabriel and you could say she just passes through the film, but she brings him back to life somehow. She bring him grace in his life. I thought it was beautiful to call the film Maya - the beauty and the fragility and youth that she symbolizes. She is the direction. She is the starting point. He might be the main character but she’s what the film looks at.

Is that also about that special person when we think back our lives there was this one person who changed the course of my existence somehow, that Gabriel can be that person for Maya by meeting her?

Totally. Maybe that was the starting point of the film. Also when I look back my own life I think of some persons I have met when I was a teenager and maybe they made me suffer at some point but they meant so much too and they helped me grow up and become aware of who I was and… So I am happy to hear that you understood that because that’s what the film is about. It’s a love story in a way but It’s more than a love story. The film is less conventional than that. Of course there’s love involved but even more than that, it’s about just what you said. Like how at some point two people who are very different who can’t really live together or make a couple… why they had to meet, why, there is something crucial that has a deep impact on your life coming out of this encounter, even though they go separate ways at the end.

That’s how I took it when I watched it. Why I admire you as an artist is that your film’s scale is getting bigger even though your theme - time passing and meeting someone important in your life. You always try something that is more difficult to achieve. You once told me that you were having hard time financing these films because they are grander in scale.

It’s the guilt I feel when I make these films because they are not financially viable. I obviously don’t want them to be expensive but the fact is I fight for shooting on 35mm film which is personally very important to me. And I struggle to keep a certain time, to have possibility of minimum of time because I have so many locations, I keep running from one place to another. I mean they are still cheap compared to 90 percent of films that are being made in the world but economically viable while still being free creatively like some other directors I know, I’m not smart on that side of things yet. I know I should be because it is vital to keep doing what I love doing.

No I think with all your films you show the audience that you really suffer for your art. I am grateful for it. I am grateful for watching these.

Thank you so much. Because it makes all worth it when people tell me this. It give me courage and confidence and we actually need it.

Keep doing it by all means. I don’t want to downplay the importance of this film but I’d love to see a sequel to this film. The way it ended, I want to see more of Maya since she is just starting her life.

I don’t know. it is hard to predict for myself what I’m going to do next but I enjoyed so much working with Aarshi and Roman that one thing for sure is I’d very much to work with them again at some point. I still feel frustrated about not getting enough from them.

Goa, the way you portray it, it’s going through a radical transformation with all the new constructions and all that. Is it actually happening? That the gentrification of Goa is real?

It’s maybe one thing that I’m the most proud of of the film. How faithful it is to today’s Goa. It’s a fiction and definitely not a documentary. But I’d like to frame it in such a way in fiction that I reflect the reality and capture the moment in time. I’ve seen Goa change a lot within the last 15 years and I’m not sure if I would go back there again anymore now because of these changes. Goa is certainly not a paradise but more like paradise lost. And that’s what I tried to show because there are still beauty and charms in many ways but you have so much mixed feelings when you are there because I think there are still a lot of poetry there in its heterogeneity in cultures and people all mixed up and magical because it’s still india but it’s ruined by tourism and corruption. It’s spoiling away literally both physically with pollution and mentally. I think in a way the film was my goodbye letter to Goa.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Interview: Mikhaël Hers on Grief, Music and Summer in Amanda

Mikhaël Hers
With his thoughtful presentation of loss, grief and human connection and youthful melancholy in medium length films (just around 1 hour mark) Montparnasse and Primrose Hill, I was hooked on Mikhaël Hers’ gentle artistry. With the two features that followed, Memory Lane and That Summer Feeling, he claimed his spot in a little corner in the hearts of many cinephiles as a young talent and best kept secret in contemporary French cinema. With his new film Amanda, another film dealing with the loss of a loved one in the era of ISIS and terror attacks, I had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker when he was in town for Rendez-Vous with French Cinema this year.

Your films always deal with loss and grief in some way. But it seems it is very much on the forefront in your last two films- That Summer Feeling and now Amanda. It’s interesting contrast, since your main characters are all 20 to 30 something people in their primes. I’ve always wanted to ask you where that death and grief in your work coming from.

Maybe I make films to answer that question. In any case, as soon as I start writing, that question is what drives me. It’s usually a specific locations and also the question of absence, as you described, that plays out both full, head on manner and also metaphorically. In Amanda it’s a bit more head on. It’s something I can’t really explain but, in a sense, the question has been always there in me.

We are obviously living in a pretty chaotic world- the refuge crises and the terrorist attacks and so on. It was interesting to see in Amanda that this terror attack is portrayed as an every day occurrence, something we just live with. I am wondering what you make of the state of the world we are living in.

It’s hard to answer that question. Here too, we are talking about absence. Perhaps we make films to find serenity, if serenity is possible in dealing with these things. And in cinema, in fiction, I’d rather make you to deal with those things more on a personal level, rather than making things that are completely saturated with political or social discourse. I think it is maybe possible to look at the state of the world through intimate tragedy, through daily life of these characters rather than dealing with it in an obsessed manner torn straight from the news headlines. I hope that answers your question.

Amanda was co-written by Maud Ameline not your usual collaborator Marietta Desert. How did you get to collaborate with her and what was the experience?

For this particular movie or in general?

In both cases?

I always start by writing the first draft alone. Even before that, there is rather a long maturing process which is full of wondering and false leads. But then I write fast. It’s not in me to drag writing process two or three years. When I’m done with this incubating process then I write the first draft very fast. After that I bring in a co-writer Marietta Désert or Maud Ameline. And of course they bring in much needed outside view and structure. Generally my first version is very dense and goes a lot of different directions and they help me kind of purify things and cut them down.

Vincent Lacoste is a rising star of the French cinema it seems. You have your usual actors to choose from (Thibault Vinçon comes to mind). How did you come to choose Lacoste in the role of David?

When I was writing the first draft, the age of the character was less clear whether David should be in his twenties or thirties. Once I realized the right age for the character was in the early 20s, it was quite obvious to me that it had to be Vincent Lacoste. He is the one who has the ability to create empathy. And there is something ordinary about him: one the one hand he is handsome and full of grace but he also has something rather awkward about him. It was an obvious choice for me. Once he accepted a role, our work came very naturally. It was as if the melodies we had in our heads immediately corresponded. We’d do one or two takes but very quickly we found a common note and tone.

The young girl, Isaure Multrier, who plays Amanda is also great. What was the casting process like and how did you get the performance out of her especially in those emotional scenes?

We did what we call in French ‘Casting Sauvage’, a ‘wild casting’, basically a street casting. Of course we saw some professional child actors, but there is always that uncomfortable feeling working with professional child actors. They are there to perform more of a parents’ dream than anything else. So I really counted on street casting. We went to schools. We went to sport classes and so on and when we saw this young girl we gave her this little piece of paper with the address of the production company and she came in did a screen test. I really liked the kind of mix that she is - that she is still a young child and can be very juvenile but also has a real maturity. she has an ability to express her thoughts in words. I liked those two dimensions about her.

In terms of emotional sequences, we worked as the way you’d work with adults. One tries to create an atmosphere and ambience of trust and welcoming around the actors. And I also tried to make her understand to draw from her own person and experience. That Amanda was a character and a shell and she only could play this through her own experience.

You worked with international cast before. Anders Danielsen Lie and Josh Safdie in That Summer Feeling. You have Stacey Martin and also Greta Scacchi in Amanda. How did you get to cast those roles and how did they come onboard?

I wanted some one to counter Vincent Lacoste and found it in Stacey Martin. Vincent Lacoste is a very intuitive, natural actor. Stacey is more of a cerebral actress and I like that kind of disjointed counterpoint to very intuitive Vincent. And maybe due to her dual nationality, she has a singular musicality in her speech. I don’t know if foreigners can hear but for us French, we hear in how she speaks.

As for Greta Scacchi, I was a fan of her growing up in the 80s and 90s. We needed someone who spoke English but also French to play the role of the mother. There was an opportunity to meet her. I had lunch with her few months before. But she was on the set for only one day. It’s funny she had become this person who was very important but the shoot and she came for one day and it was done. And she disappeared like that. It was like a dream.

Speaking of musicality, I love the soundtrack of your films. (Hers Laughs) How does the music factor in to your films? And how important is music for you?

Music is my first passion. It’s something that I listen to everyday unlike cinema which I can do without for weeks at a time. So it is very important. It generally comes in in the editing stage. Very quickly we find spots in the movie where the music is going to be placed. In Amanda, we called on a composer Anton Sanko who had done the music for a Nicole Kidman film called Rabbit Hole. I had really like the music in that film. The film is very interesting too but the music really spoke to me. And it stuck with me for a long time. We borrowed it for the edit then said to ourselves that we should contact him to write some original music for us. It is very interesting what he did because there’s kind of minimalist parts with an unusual string instrument and also more ample orchestrated parts. Also in my films that you seem to appreciate, a lot of indie pop songs that are from my teenage years which I enjoy paying tribute to by bring them in to my films.

Most of your films are taking place in the summer. is there a reason for that? I mean it’s really interesting contrast when you think about your subject matters you usually deal with.

For one thing it’s a very pragmatic choice. Summer is a the season that allows you to shoot in the lightest manner even though I tend to work with traditional crew. Summer allows you to work with less lighting equipment to make things faster. Also like you said, all my films has this starting point of absence. I find it more painful and powerful under a blue sky to experience that. It’s paradoxical on the one hand that Summer is about possibilities and renewal but there[’s something tears you apart a little more if you are dealing with absence. I like that ambivalence.

There is a scene, the day after the terror attack, the streets of Paris is completely empty. How did you manage that?

We shot that in the early morning. We have relatively small budget. It was not in our budget to empty a street in paris so we had to find compromises. We get PAs to maybe make a few people go different way. These are arrangement with reality.

So you’ve done films in Paris, Berlin, New York and London. Do you have any plans to shoot anywhere else?

I love Lisbon. It would be great to do a film in Lisbon and all other wonderful places but for the moment I have yet a new project. So I don’t know.

In your last film That Summer Feeling, I’ve never seen New York portrayed that romantic before. (Hers Laughs, embarrassed)

Yeah I know. That maybe because of my limitation of knowledge of the city. When you arrive in a new city you lack acuity in your gaze of someone who lives there. So there’s something a little exotic and a little romantic about how I filmed New York and in Williamsburg. Though to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know it at the time but I realize now that maybe I would film a little differently. I think I was a little bit naive. I do like the New York sequence of the film but perhaps I was a little naive.

It was fine. Job well done. I enjoyed it a lot.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Melancholic Inspiration

Ce sentiment d'lété/That Summer Feeling (2015) - Hers
Cesentimentdelete
The film starts in Berlin with Sacha (Stéphanie Daub-Laurent, Hers' regular) sleeping in bed with Lawrence (Anders Danielson Lie), getting up and going to a printing studio where she vigorously works with her screen print. It's a beautiful Summer day. On her way back in the park, she falls to the ground. She is pronounced dead in the hospital and her parents and Zoë (Judith Chemla), her sister who flew in, are in shock, as well as Lawrence. Sacha's death affects her immediate surroundings greatly. The film unhurriedly and beautifully show how they slowly recover from their grief but will carry their sadness with them forever.

Hers here expands his horizon, first Berlin, then Paris, Southern France and ends in New York. Zoë with her young son has moved back to her parents in the south. The separation from David (Thibault Vinçon), her husband was a mutual decision but with death of Sacha and everything, she is in limbo, trying to figure out her next move. Lawrence visits them and there is slight attraction between them. Zoë reminds him of Sacha.

Couple of years later Lawrence is back in New York. He had a past there. Working as a translator for a book company while writing his novel, he is surrounded by group of people including June (Lana Cooper), his sister and Thomas (Josh Safdie), his wise cracking, goofy friend. Then there is Ida (Dounia Sichov) in the group he hangs out with. Their mutual attraction is palpable. Liked all the sequences but NY part I loved it. He paints NY distinctly romantic. Williamsburg in the Summer has never been portrayed this cool in grungy eclectic ways.

Zoë visits Lawrence on the way to Kentucky. She has a long lost flame there who recently resurfaced in her life. They have a good time hanging out. Their gazes are tender and caring, sharing the same grief together. Zoë sees Lawrence having a good time with Ida, how they look at each other. There are no words exchanged but you feel the sadness and also relief in Zoë's gaze.

We grieve for the loss of loved ones. It is part of human life. It's always a matter of when. Preferably later in life, but it's not always that way. For Hers, the subject seems to be a constant source of melancholic inspiration for all of his small, delicate films concerning a group of mostly young twenty, thirty something people. I like Hers' contrast - these sensitive, intelligent Parisians in their prime with their hopes and dreams connecting with one another despite, or perhaps because of losing someone close. It's always Summer. The time of rejuvenation. Their sadness has not tainted their youthful exuberance but enhanced it by putting another layer on their characters, wizened them up, if you will. Ce sentiment d'lété is perhaps the best Hers film that epitomizes this youthful melancholy.