East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Auckland International Film Festival: Everybody hates a tourist

Heading South (Laurent Cantet)
One reason I think Cantet is the closest thing we have to a contemporary Renoir is that his wisdom about the ways society has changed in his lifetime is ultimately a function of his understanding of individuals -- with essential female input from his writing partner Robin Campillo, there's no greater characteriser in cinema today. Perhaps that's why Heading South, centred as it is around relations two Northern women each have with a Haitian man, is more apt with sexual politics than with politics-politics. Cantet once again demonstrates his understanding of globalisation -- how even when the North thinks it's helping the South, it may not be. But this point is almost overwhelmed by the erotics. Sex tourism is so fulfilling for these women that Cantet has to engineer an uncharacteristically abrupt greying of the postcard vistas to get back on message.

As Brenda, Karen Young wears her neediness on her sleeve. She gets an amazing monologue about how, earlier in her middle age, she discovered first Legba (nonpro Ménothy Cesar) and subsequently the reality of sexual pleasure -- the speech is in the same league as Bibi Andersson's in Persona. Her rival Ellen (the brittle-iron Charlotte Rampling) may still possess uncanny beauty, but it's not the kind Northern men are interested in, and even in Haiti it requires nerve and dry hair. Ellen has come south for six summers to exercise her economic power in a way her gender prevents her from doing in Boston -- but when her age attentuates that power even here, she lashes out. But she's strong enough to know when the game's up; Brenda might not be.

The star, though, is Cesar, and despite his delicate performance, shaded with moments of anger and unpredictibility, it's his sheer physical beauty that makes the impact. As Ellen notes, the attraction has something to do with his aversion to wearing shirts, but even among his countrymen he stands out -- so lithe, so graceful, so dark. Add to this his attentiveness and playfulness and the joy he takes in pleasing someone he likes, and you see why a woman would cross the sea for him -- as would a filmmaker. Perceptive as he is, Cantet must know the terrain is dangerous, and in fact he takes the further risk of not giving Legba a monologue of his own. Legba must remain the Other for the conceit of the film to stand; if Cantet had found a way to expore the Haitians in the detail he gives the Northerners, he might have made another movie as good as Time Out. But if he could hit that level twice in a lifetime, he really would be Renoir.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach)
Rolling hills and fond ballads notwithstanding, it'll be a fair way through this Palme d'Or-winning recreation of early '20s Ireland before you stop thinking about Palestine and Iraq. We follow an IRA cell recruiting and training and fighting and escaping and so on, and when we're focusing on them alone it's mostly matter of fact. It's when the British are on screen, soliders brutalising the occupied people and torturing their captives, that we're reminded of the dangers of supporting the troops in this age. This also has something to do with why the reformation of Damien (Cillian Murphy, playing straighter than type) from enraged endurer to anti-Imperial warrior is disconcerting. There are a lot of possible steps in between, and though many young men skip straight to arms, I'm wary of lionising them.

Eventually the movie does get more specific and complex, as the toll exacted on the humanity of the freedom fighters strains their unity. Having no qualms about slaughtering British troops (and one civilian), they find it infinitely harder to execute one of their own for a betrayal; I might have been more impressed had I not recently seen Army of Shadows do this scene much better. As the story enters the lull before the civil war, Loach, true to form, displays the IRA-Free State beef as a conflict between socialism and mere pragmatic nationalism, which is certainly a viable interpretation though not the only one; he gives both sides time to state their case, without disguising where his loyalty lies. In the end almost everything about the movie, from the brother vs brother structure to the elegant location cinematography, is conventional, except the politics. The best tracts are often like that.

Naked Childhood (Maurice Pialat)
I missed the entire PFA Pialat retro two years back, so this is some penance. It's about a foster child who flusters two sets of guardians, killing a cat her, causing a car wreck there, but really he's a nice kid. The degree of naturalism attained is outstanding -- all the decor feels just right. I liked that when the women burst into to song they sounded like they were throat singing, though that may have just been the print. Possibly more important is Pialat's absolute refusal to judge the kid, or anyone else for that matter: in itself, that's sweeter than I expected, given what I'd assumed about him. Into the Subjects for Further Research file he goes.


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