Thursday, March 19, 2015

Beyond Beauty and Knowledge

La Sapienza (2014) - Green
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La Sapienza is the latest from Eugène Green, an American born, French filmmaker known for his highly theatrical, Bressonian films. Highly esoteric, the film will undoubtedly turn off many viewers with its intentionally stilted acting where actors often address the audience directly. My first experience with Green film was Le pont des Arts, it concerned with the transcending power of music beyond time and space. I was too, put off by this aesthetic choice at first, but got used to it by the middle and ended up adoring the film.

There are no Altmanesque, overlapping conversations like in real life in the world Green creates. Instead, people talk in their turns, medium shot/reverse medium shot back and forth in dead seriousness, in order to convey the weighty subjects concerning art, and this time, architecture.

The thing is, the emphasis Green puts on dialog is tremendous and the idea he wants to get across is simple but always lofty. Green, from a theater background, saw the direct approach of the theater fit to convey these ideas and have been sticking with it in his filmmaking ever since.

The method, I thought at first pretentious but slowly found less cluttered by the petty human emotions and other 'worldly' things, helps to get to the heart of the matter(s) directly. Ultimately, it's Green's dialog that brings back humanity down to earth and gives his films poignancy.

La Sapienza stars Fabrizio Rongione (Two Days, One Night) as Alexandre Schmidt, a French architect tracing his steps of his idol, a Roman Baroque architect Borromini, starting in his picturesque birthplace Ticino. Alexandre has lost his ways as an architect, mired in corporate city planning which lacks humanity. He is joined by his estranged psychologist wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot) to accompany him at the conference. They grew apart some time even though they love each other.

They run into two young Italian siblings Godfredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) near the picturesque lake promenade. It's Lavinia's mysterious fainting spell that brings them together - kind-hearted Aliénor insists to be by Lavinia's bedside and suggests Alexandre to take Godfredo, a bright eyed aspiring architect, to accompany him for his research trip, instead of her. Alexandre begrudgingly accept the idea out of politeness.

At this point film becomes two distinctive narratives: one in Italian with Alexandre and Godfredo on the road and mostly in French with Aliénor with Lavinia indoors.The guys establish teacher pupil relationship as they tour various Borromini designed, glorious buildings in different cities. But it turns out Godfredo is the teacher, reminding the old man with his youthful idealism that architecture can be one's passion, that purpose for architecture is to fill the space with light and people.

As it turns out, through dialog, we find out Alexandre and Aliénor grew apart after a loss of a child. Young Lavinia's belief that her illness is some sort of sacrifice starts making sense to Aliénor.

Uncharacteristically, Green himself makes a cameo in his own film for the first time as one of the last descendants of a tribe from Iran who spoke Aramaic. Even though their culture's gone and their language lost, he serves as a foreseer who reads stars and shows that there is hope for Aliénor, because she is loved.

These lofty ideas - rekindling passion for life through the reflection on youth, the transcending power of art, the harmony in architecture and in life, the eternal nature of culture and language, things beyond beauty and knowledge, etc. are all delicately explored and examined through these four characters. Their sincere expression of these thoughts rings true and melts away its artificiality in its presentation soon enough. This is the beauty of La Sapienza and Green films in general. As the older couple realize, the source of beauty is love and the source of knowledge is light. I couldn't help but deeply moved by it by the end.

La Sapienza opens in New York on 3/20 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema. National roll out will follow. For more info, please visit Kino Lorber website.

Cinema of Searching: Lisandro Alonso Interview

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Known for his use of non-actors, loose narrative and minimal dialog, Lisandro Alonso's films are at once real and otherworldly. His cinematic explorations are often mysterious and open-ended. He is definitely not into making crowd pleasing blockbusters with big name actors for sure.

Then comes, Jauja, his hallucinatory new film which is garnering a lot of buzz, ever since it won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes and made splashes at TIFF and NYFF last year, stars Viggo Mortensen (who also serves as a producer and provides music) and is a period piece. And for the first time, his characters speak in full sentences. Does this mean Alonso is going mainstream? Or is this just another branch of his explorations in cinematic realm to convey what's unattainable? You will find answers to these questions in this interview below, or maybe not.

Unlike his enigmatic films, Alonso in person (via skype) is very open and engaging, his answers direct yet elusive. 

Jauja opens in New York on 3/20. National roll out will follow. Please visit Cinema Guild website for more info.

JAUJA is a big departure at least in scope from the other 4 features you've made. You have a big Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen and you also have a co-writer on this for the first time, Argentinian poet Fabian Casas. Then you have Timo Salminen, Aki Kaurismaki's cinematographer as your DP. How did all these come about?

I've been making films since 2001. Every 2-3 years I've made a film. After I made Liverpool in 2008, I wasn't sure I wanted to make films anymore. I went back to my family's farm, I got married and I had a child. 

But I was thinking about doing another film. And I didn't want to repeat what I've done film after film, without any professional actors. There were people I always wanted to work with, like Viggo and Timo. Then I became friends with Fabian Casas. After two or three years, he and I came up with a treatment for Jauja. Since I don't write conventional scripts, I had about 20 pages of this thing that we sent to Viggo. He liked the idea and it took off from there. He produced it and did a music for it too. Now he is promoting the film at festivals all over the world.

Did he know your work before?

I think he'd seen and liked Los Muertos. He told me that he saw something honest in that film. I think he might have seen my other films later on. But that's the film he mentioned. All I can say is that he is a brave man to take on something like this.

Thematically, JAUJA is similar to your second film, LOS MUERTOS. Since you've done 5 films now, do you see the same theme repeating in your body of work?

Yes. But it's just a part of the film. It's a simple premise of father or brother looking for a daughter, son, sister or mother... It's an excuse for me to expand on that thin premise to build up something in that environment. It's like that with all my films.

Going back to the searching for the lost daughter theme, you famously asked "Who's John Ford?" when someone mentioned  his name when comparing a similar shot in one of your films. I think it was from LIVERPOOL. And here we are again with JAUJA.

You know, for the record that I was joking when I asked 'who is John Ford'.

I know I know. But I can't honestly think of any reference when considering your films. They are very unique and original. That said, do you have any filmmakers who influenced you?

Oh yeah, many. I don't know about John Ford, but I watched a lot of Italian neo-realists films when I was in school, you know? I love Tsai Ming-liang, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, lately I am very fond of Aki Kaurismaki's films.

Do you still go to cinemas and watch a lot of films?

Not as much. But I am very interested in what directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul is up to or what Paul Thomas Anderson is up to.

In your films, there are contrasts between nature, the simple way of life and civilization, realistic depiction of everyday life and fantasy, past and the present in cinematic terms. Is the idea of phantom/illusion something you are interested in exploring with the cinematic medium?

That's a very good question. But as opposed to...?

Like painting, photography, music, literature....

Yes. I wasn't really good at those. I tried to be a musician when I was 20, but I wasn't really good at it. I tried acting but I couldn't really act. Not good in front of camera. I think I feel more comfortable behind the camera, hiding.

The thing is that there are so many things that I don't really know. That is the part of reason why I make films. I don't have a clear idea of what I'm searching for.

JAUJA also explores colonialism in Argentina's history with Dinesen, a Danish engineer serving a Argentine Army to clear the road for settlers. Is it any way based on Argentina's history?

I've read some books. Fabian read many books on history obviously. It happened here like it happened anywhere. But I didn't want to pinpoint exactly what time period Jauja is set. I know those moments in history happened in more or less the same way that happens in the film. I mean, like organizing the city just outside the green area just to exterminate Indians as they construct those big holes that you see in the film.

But other than that, we are trying to put all these little facts in the film in favor of making the film bigger, and grow it out some other directions. We did that so we could get at the main theme: how one survives when someone that you really love is gone. How to keep going with your life and everything around you when that happens.

How was shooting in Patagonian desert? What were some of the challenges you've had?

Well it was not easy. I mean we were living in some tents and had to house camera gears and microphones and things like that. But we were strong group of people. There were about 25-30 of us. They were like a family to me. Many of them I've been working with for the last 10-15 years.

Then there were some new guys like Viggo and Timo and a young Danish actress (Villbjørg Marling Agger) with her parents. They were all around talking Danish, English and Spanish drinking some bottles of wine at night and working hard again the next day. There were no roads there so we all just walked to the next locations for, I don't know, half an hour or so.

If you are in that kind of shooting environment, you need people and they need your energy to keep going. We managed very well I think. It wasn't that long of a shoot, about 4 weeks or something like that.

But It can be strange for some. I was not afraid for Viggo, because I knew him a little. He is a tough guy. But for Villbjørk, who played Ingeborg, I didn't know if she would be comfortable. She came from Denmark and she hadn't acted in her life. It was her first film role. She must've thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' It's a desert and there isn't even a bathroom you know? But she did very well and we had a good, supportive group.

Now you've done relatively a big movie and expanded your cinematic horizon, whatever that means...
(we laugh)
but it seems that for you the possibilities of what you are searching for in cinema is opened up a little more, I am wondering what you will do next?

That's a good question. I think about that every day. But to be honest with you, I'm not in a hurry. I just feel that I had a good experience making this film, meeting all those great people and traveling a little bit, presenting the film.

I have some ideas. And I would like to work with the same people again, in terms of Viggo and Timo plus all the crew members I've been working with and Fabian. But I'd like to go farther and go to another country. I'd love to shoot in the Amazons in Brazil. I have some ideas shooting in some remote place inside the US also, but just like that Denmark scene in Jauja, as a small element. But, yeah, nobody knows. Tomorrow I might change my mind and shoot the entire film in my house.

But I think the nature is very important character for me. I will feel safe if I'm near a tree. As long as I have nature in my films, I'll be fine.

A Charming, Deftly Surrealistic Slacker Comedy

Tu dors Nicole (2014) - Lafleur
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After making an appearance at The Directors Fortnight section of Cannes Film festival last year, Tu dors Nicole screened at TIFF and was included in Canada's Top Ten feature films of 2014. It's playing as part of New Directors/New Films series at FSLC on 3/20 and at MoMA on 3/22. Please visit ND/NF website for more info.

Quebec based filmmaker Stéphane Lefleur's wry slacker comedy Tu dors Nicole (You are sleeping, Nicole) stars Julianne Côté in the title role of Nicole, a 20 something young woman with one foot still firmly lodged in childhood and the other slightly hovering over somewhere else.

It's the beginning of summer and her parents are away on vacation. She has a big house and an outdoor pool all to herself. Other than working at a local thrift shop, she spends most of her time either in bed or aimlessly walking/biking around town with her best friend, Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent) who works at an office.

Their tranquil existence is shattered when Nicole's moody older brother and his band mates set up shop in their parents' living room to practice. The band's new drummer, JF (Francis La Haye) is kinda cute in that grungy way (like their 90s style music), but it's pretty obvious that he is more interested in pretty blonde Véronique than her.

Nicole's boredom occasionally breaks with surreal moments in everyday life- the neighbor picking up her dog's doo-doo in the yard with a vacuum cleaner, a frail looking neighborhood boy Martin, whom she used to babysit before he made advances on her, now having a svelte baritone voice, for his voice broke way too early for his age (he's like 8), JF's mysterious First-Aid kit turning out to be a best tomato sandwich making kit, perching a giant stuffed toy over a used funiture and a geyser shooting up in her backyard pool, like in Iceland.

Her life gets a little brighter when she gets her first credit card in the mail. But she doesn't really know what to do with it other than paying for ice cream sundaes at the local outdoor ice cream shop. But on a whim, she buys plane tickets to Iceland for herself and Véronique. They learn Icelandic phrases in preparation - vacuum cleaner in Icelandic is ryksuga, for instance. But what's in Iceland? What would they do there? "Nothing. We do nothing somewhere else," Nicole replies wryly.

tu dors nicole poster.jpgBeautifully shot in contrasty black and white by Sara Mishara, Tu dors Nicole is especially gorgeous in exterior night scenes: as an insomniac, Nicole partakes in nighttime baseball game, standing under the park lamp dazed, while the ball drops to the ground near her. She walks around at night in the neighborhood which are only illuminated by street lamps. She hears whale songs in the night winds and hitches a ride, driven by a tired father driving in circles in the hopes of putting his baby in the backseat to sleep.

After getting fired from the thrift shop for stealing donated clothes, she resorts back to babysitting lovesick Martin who tells her he can wait for her. "Take your time, experience the world, then come back to me", he says in his velvety voice. Then they play Cowboys and Indians.

Côté beautifully underplays her character, covering up all the scruples of growing up with a wiry smile. There is glimpse of natural beauty in her when least expected - in front of electric fan or with the Indian war princess make up on.

Tu dors Nicole plays with elasticity of time- everything seems to be in slow-motion when you are young but it accelerates in speed as you grow older. Nicole's somnambulistic life gets a dose of reality check when she runs into her former High School sweetheart who's getting married. And Véronique can't get away from the job to go to Iceland because she has to pay the rent. It's not svelty Martin who's on the verge of adulthood, but it's her and she is not ready to admit that yet.

Lafleur's talent is in his delicate writing aided by droll visual composition. Small things in Nicole's life have a tendency to resurface in physical forms in surrealistic way. I find his deadpan humor and subtle, surrealist touches irresistibly charming.