2005 SYRACUSE INTERNATIONAL FILM AND VIDEO FESTIVAL
Interestingly, maybe even intelligently bad, but bad all the same. This is the story of an oh-so-European existential problem, a woman with virtually no discernable subjectivity. This can work like gangbusters on me (cf. She's One of Us) when it's done right, but here Franchi channels it into a terminally vague stalker narrative, his protagonist, Valeria, coming off like a distaff Tom Ripley, leaving us never sure just how far she'll go. All this could have possibly worked, to an extent, but unfortunately Franchi (in his first at-bat) shows few gifts as a filmmaker. His compositions are flat and negligible, his direction of actors awkwardly bland. When something striking enters the frame, like red brake lights through a bus window, it's clearly by accident, the way a broken clock is correct twice a day; almost immediately the flashes of style dissipate and the general near-competence surges to the fore once again. For much of the running time, it appeared that Franchi was employing a smart (if mishandled) structural conceit -- fading immediately to black any time sex, violence, or a dramatic twist occurred. Thus, I thought, he's calling attention to our own spectatorship, denying us the conventional pleasures of narrative cinema. But then, an hour in, he gives us a sex scene, and my hypothesis went out the window. Reasonably well-written, and never aggressively poor, The Spectator is the sort of film that despite its faults (maybe because of them) could have slipped undetected into the 2003 New Directors / New Films line-up, been gently but firmly dismissed by Stephen Holden, and sank without a trace. Instead, even that sad fate has eluded it.
Pintilie, as far as I know, remains Romania's preeminent filmmaker, having made a sizable splash in the early 90s with The Oak and An Unforgettable Summer. But he's fallen off the radar of late. This is the first Pintilie film I've seen, and through most of the running time I was absolutely enthralled by some of the most skillful, sure-footed direction I've seen in ages. The man knows how to do graceful, effortless-looking tracking shots through close quarters, and his compositions are unfailingly sharp and faux-accidental, the camera always landing up in the right place but never ostentatious about it. Basically a tense family comedy, Niki and Flo seemed for most of its running time to have only one discernable "flaw," if you want to put it that way -- that what it was doing, however comedically acute, was minor and unprofound, a bright, beautifully observed light entertainment. Niki and Flo are in-laws, and what we have here is a repressed, devoutly Catholic retired colonel being continually snubbed, one-upped, and talked down to by a flawlessly unrepentant asshole. (If you have a loud, gauche, pushy know-it-all in your family, Niki and Flo really is required viewing.) Lots of films and even more TV shows mine this territory, but Pintilie has a unique gift. Even if the content is undoubtedly familiar, the stylistic flair with which Pintilie executes it buoys the material onto another plane. (The approach, which I can now think to describe only with the clumsy phrase "loose rigor," recalls Martín Rejtman, Stoll / Rebella, Lucrecia Martel and at times Aki Kaurismäki's lighter moments.) I should add that there is a wee bit more to it than pure family hijinx, since Florian is considerably more at home in the post-communist world than Niki who it's hinted may have been a Ceausescu lackey. Apart from one surreal, incomprehensible-to-foreigners political argument, Pintilie wisely lets this subtext remain just that, coming through as just another opportunity for familial needling. Niki and Flo debuted at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, and apart from a few minor festival stops, pretty much disappeared without a trace. "Why wasn't this at Toronto," I wondered continually throughout the film, "or even the New York Film Festival?" Then came my answer: a plot development in the final ten minutes so misjudged, so completely unwarranted, it very nearly torpedoed all that had come before it. I haven't seen defeat snatched so decisively from the jaws of victory in quite some time. Still, as horribly shitty endings go, it too was well-executed. If you care about narrative integrity and plot cohesion above formal properties (unlike me), you're liable to be much less forgiving, but I'd still say it's absolutely worth seeing should you get the chance.
At the end of Niki and Flo I was surprised to discover that Puiu was that film's co-screenwriter. I'd already resolved to check out his short film, since it won the Golden Bear in Berlin in its category, and his feature debut secured a spot in Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year. While the film is easy-going and certainly well shot, it struck me as too derivative of the current wave of Comedy of Embarrassment (cf. "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The Office"). Without benefit of the time necessary to cultivate the audience concern for character that is a must for this sort of thing, the humor just kind of fell flat. Victor Rebengiuc, the lead actor from Niki and Flo, turns in another nicely muted performance, his wounded pride barely concealed behind a patina of stoicism. If it were in black and white, you could almost slip it into Jarmusch's reverse-titular omnibus and it would pretty much blend in. While I certainly would make no great claims for this film, I also suspect my bias against short-form narrative works is blinding me to some of its charms. Presuming Puiu's new long-player, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, pops up at TIFF, I'd certainly consider slotting it in, provided there isn't a Von Trier, Haneke, Dardenne, Sokurov, Egoyan, Tsai, Hou, Hong, Suzuki, or Reygadas film playing at that time. You know what I mean?
Painfully amateurish on every level. At first, the itchy-trigger-finger editing was kind of intriguing, with scenes sliced up into bizarre close-ups and multiple angles for no apparent reason. An attempt at displaying a Bresson influence? Not really; there was no coherence to the framings, and eventually they began alternating with long, flat, televisual master shots. Nothing to recommend at all.
For most of its running time, Vaterland posed a significant challenge for my evaluation, since it does a lot of things quite well. Until the "conclusion," this is, in effect, the kind of 3/10 rating I give to a Todd Solondz film -- the director is in firm control of the medium, using it to express a worldview (or in this case, create an environment) that is so repugnant that it contravenes my aesthetic preferences at every turn. I find it hard to walk out of films like this, since they teach me something about myself and my reactions, and the rise they get out of me cannot be denied. Shot in butt-ugly hand-held digital video, with occasional jabs of striking, saturated artificial color, Vaterland is caked in the filth of aristocratic decline, a sort of rotting, maggot-infested post-Nazi Magnificent Ambersons. Four brothers and two wives return to their father's decrepit family mansion to attempt to restore order, and to embark on a bizarre secret-ritual hunting expedition, just like the old man used to do. This is Jarab's first feature film after years of work as a production designer, and his achievement in fashioning an enveloping, insular world in Vaterland is undeniable. The film made my flesh crawl. The mansion is swarming with flies, and the dominant element of the sound design throughout the entire film is that of flies buzzing past the microphone and practically into your ear canal. This, combined with a humorless, hypnotic commitment to the obscure language of ritual and secret-society pomp, combined to form a viewing sensation that I wanted to physically scrape off of my body. (The only similar sensation that comes to mind is that of watching Andrew Rapasky McElhenny's A Chronicle of Corpses, another film about stasis and decay.) Stylistically it's impressive; someone is bound to like this film, but it isn't going to be me. Adding to the frustration is the fact that everything about the story structure implies some kind of big twist or shocking reveal, and there's not one, to say the very least. I suppose it's to Jarab's credit that he denies this ever-popular tack, but what he delivers instead is inscrutable, half-baked "ambiguity" that delivers nothing in the way of formal integrity, much less narrative satisfaction. At one point, Jarab shows us a copy of the Czech edition of André Breton's Surrealism, a clumsy bit of special pleading that doesn't begin to justify what are, in fact, just the picture's flaws.
[SPOILERS] A sneaky, surprising little videowork. This film documents the conception, promotion, and "opening" of a fake hypermarket in a meadow outside Prague. (This isn't a spoiler; the filmmakers introduce their hoax in the first few minutes of the film.) From an American leftist perspective, I stupidly went in assuming that big box retail was going to be the target of their critique. But there's a lot about Czech Dream that is unique, and uniquely enlightening, about the Czech experience. For one thing, it's not a Wal-Mart they're "building," but a European-style hypermarket -- a massive indoor-mall consisting of one store. Meijer and the French import Auchan (now defunct in the U.S.) are the only equivalents I know of in this country, and the model that Czech Dream examines is a huge Tesco, the British retail giant having clearly staked a substantial tentpole in Eastern Europe. Czech Dream had been offhandedly promoted to me as a kind of post-communist version of The Yes Men (which I haven't seen yet), but surprisingly the film is an odd-duck cross between Morgan Spurlock and Harun Farocki. Yes, there's the comedy and stuntsmanship at the expense of mega-capitalism. But a lot of time is spent patiently, rather non-judgmentally examining, Farocki-style, the actual work behind advertising, design, consumer psychology, test marketing, focus groups, and, in what is far and away the film's best scene, the recording of a hysterically overproduced jingle, complete with a full girls' choir. These moments were surprising and even jarring (especially the sequence where a consumer scientist places a camera / helmet contraption on a woman's head to record her eye movements over three different direct-mail flyers), but again, coming in with my Western biases, it all felt a little too uncritical. The "Czech Dream" project started to look like a rather apolitical experiment in social psychology and consumer behavior. At the end, however, Klusák and Remunda hit you full-force with the subtext that has, in fact, been fully present all along, but liable to escape notice unless you're looking for it. What is the "Czech Dream"? While they are mounting this massive conceptual art project, the Czech government is spending millions on a professional advertising blitz to convince the citizenry to vote Yes on the referendum to join the E.U. In other words, the republic's future is being sold, just like any other product. (Joan Didion has explained how the Pentagon does consumer research to find out how to best "brand" its military offensives, to make them seem like good products worthy of our support. This would be a great topic for a documentary-exposé.) So in a way, my own blinkered-leftist expectations led to a revelatory bait-and-switch, not unlike that experienced by the "patrons" themselves. Czech Dream is very much worth seeing should you get the chance. Or, in the words of the jingle, "don't be a sloth, go grab a cart! Don't blow this off, realize your dream!"