Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Perfect Sense - no questions asked!

With all its tediousness of an over-evocative montage and a story line that presents some highly improbable scenarios Perfect Sense turns out to be a fairly enjoyable film. Poetic in a way, but too serious about its subject matter, the film equally charms and annoys with its emotive stylistic features and a poorly written script.

The film tells a story of a young couple, Michael (Ewan McGregor) and Susan (Eva Green) who must overcome their emotional fears while struggling to make sense of the outburst of an unusual epidemic during which people start losing their senses. The disease first attacks the sense of smell, and then moves to taste, sound and finally sight. People try to keep on living while their worlds slowly turn upside down. In the foreground to that apocalyptic occurrence, the director David McKenzie plots a love fairytale about two people who overcome all obstacles and learn to understand the true meaning of love. The story sounds banal, but as it may surprise some, that banality is the film’s biggest forte.

When taken seriously Perfect Sense is an incredibly depressing love story. The whole world is heading towards its end; humanity will quite probably cease to exist after the last sense – sight, finally disappears. But only through such magnificent decline of our civilisation we are to understand the true meaning of the titled ‘perfect sense’. All other senses must fail us so that we can appreciate the most important one of them all – the sensation of love.

I wish I could give some smart explanation to McKenzie’s extravagant message, but I can’t. I’m afraid that if I start analysing his film too closely I will start liking it less and less with each question asked. Why is it that such profound suffering must be brought upon people only so that they can appreciate the meaning of love? Why is love to be thought as the ‘perfect sense’? Why does the director sympathise so strongly with the society’s embrace of suffering? Why isn’t anyone trying to find a cure to the ‘epidemic’?

But then, why bother asking? Finding answers to any of these questions won’t make the film any better. So the point of the story is this: ignorance is bliss. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The self-fulfilling prophecy of artistic decline - Faust, dir. Aleksander Sokurov

There is no way of watching a major film festival winner like Andrei Sokurov’s Faust without having to overcome a set of expectations that being such a highly praised flick would entail. To explain in detail what having these expectations means I would like to spend a moment to examine the circumstances of Faust becoming the winner of last year’s edition of the Venice Film Festival. Viennale’s rickety track record of selecting its winners is a prime example of how the politics of a film festival and the judges’ bias towards certain artists has a power to poison its supposedly fair selection process. The most recent edition that brought a lot of negative publicity was the 2010 festival when Quentin Tarantino famously showered his ex-girlfriend Sofia Coppola and her Somewhere with the most important statuettes. Tarantino’s misjudgement prompted the festival’s organisers to introduce more scrutiny into selection process, which would disable the jury from pulling a similar audacious stunt in the future.

The controversy surrounding the 2010 edition inevitably affected the politics of awarding the films a year later. Even without watching the film one can definitely notice how Faust seems to be a very reasonably safe choice. Aleksander Sokurov is quite a renowned artist whose filmography spans almost 20 feature films, many of which were awarded at a multitude of film festivals in the years past. The director’s lack of affiliation with any of the jurors (Darren Aronofsky chaired the jury that year) and his indubitable directorial skills assured that there would be no disagreement in choosing his film as the winner in 2011. Yet the blatancy of it being such safe, uncontroversial choice diminishes the festival’s status and victimises Sokurov by making him the festival’s agent of propagating political correctness. But before we discuss that point a bit further, let’s look at the film itself.

The story of Faust loosely follows Goethe’s 19th century masterpiece of the same title. Doctor Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is disappointed with life which has brought him nothing but misery. In the book, the character is a God-fearing individual who cherishes knowledge above the well-being of his soul. The Faust that we know from Sokurov’s film already acquired all the knowledge a human can hope to obtain and learned that there was no happiness to be found in science. Understanding how the world works made him vulnerable and nihilistic. Faust then accidentally meets a local moneylender named Mauritius (Anton Adasinsky) who represents the devil from Goethe’s prose – Mephistopheles. Mauritius stops Faust from committing suicide and takes him on a journey around the town. In a public laundry Faust notices a beautiful young girl name Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) who charms him with her laughter. A chain of events, all of which are masterfully manipulated by Mauritius, lead the two men to the funeral of Margarete’s estranged brother where Faust is given a chance to make further advances towards the girl. The two make an instant connection but in order to fulfil his sexual desires Faust is forced to sell his soul to the devil.

The list of differences between Sokurov’s film and Goethe’s novel is too long to consider the source material anything more than an inspiration. Goethe’s character was an archetypically romantic, restless soul whose hunger for knowledge of the world prompts him to resign from  eternal bliss. Sokurov’s Faust is a cold pragmatic who looks at life through the prism of science, believing only in the certainty of material things. That attitude turns him into a nihilist who thinks that life is both absurd and unfair, lacking any sense of meaning. He follows the footsteps of Kafka’s K, who is unable to make any sense of the social injustice. Just like K, Faust is passively led to his doom, constantly pushed around by society, unable to avoid his disastrous fate.

Sokurov obviously has a message to share through his reinvention of Faust. In one of the scenes Faust visits another doctor who runs a very successful practice in the town. The secret to his success is his sensibility to applying just the right kind of treatment so desired by his patients. According to Sokurov, the intellectual elite are in decline as their insight is undermined by the outgrowing consumerist market. Faust’s expertise is unwanted and unnecessary as it goes against the popular concepts. His blind certainty in science pushes him to the extremes and compels him to deny God or any form of the supernatural. Sokurov criticises him for that. He surrounds his main character with the mystique of nature and presents him with the angelic countenance of Margarete, but the man still cannot see below the surface. In the end his ignorance, as is the case for so many characters, is his undoing.

Sokurov’s theme of spirituality vs. science brings us back to the aforementioned point about the festival’s political correctness. The director’s objection towards a consumerist society is clich├ęd to say the least. Even more, the director makes some astounding assumptions that people’s vain consumerism is the outcome of a spiritual decline which will lead us to atheism and nihilism. His distrust in science comes from a conviction that no scientific formula can describe artistic sensibilities. The jury of the festival stands in full support of Sokurov’s view, no matter how tiresome and over-prudent the perception of spiritual superiority over science might be. But what matters for Viennale is that Sokurov’s film is a poster child for cinema d’auteur. Through the film’s audacious aesthetics, non-linear storytelling, and artistic inter-textuality the festival board proves that they are still able to recognise ‘real’ cinema. And that creates an interesting paradox – Viennale fulfils Sokurov’s prophecy of artistic decline precisely by awarding his film with the main prize.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - Ceylan's cinematic poem

As it premiered in the UK during last year’s London Film Festival, Ceylan’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was rendered as his “most audacious film yet.” When the word “audacity” is used in relation to the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan one can be sure that his audaciousness will be evident in a complete disregard to the audiences’ expectations of the film. We are tested on many levels with Anatolia. Not only the film’s duration reaches the unexpected 2 ½ hours, its narration seems monotonous at best and the subject of the film potentially unworthy of our investment. And yet it must be said that Ceylan’s uncompromising audaciousness pays off in the end and all of the aforementioned concerns transpire that one’s pre-established conception of a film structure can be damaging to our cinematic experience to say the least. The director takes us on a journey into the wilderness of the Turkish southern parts where we experience mysticism emanating from the region’s rich cultural entanglements.

It is said that Anatolia entices mainly through its surreal dimension. Although its dreamlike quality is definitely noticeable, the film’s artistry is best to be seen through the prism of magical realism. Ceylan’s story while interweaved with a multitude of aesthetical and artistic elements is not meant to be read on purely allegorical level. The amount of detail each character brings into the story requires our attention and full investment into their lives. Through their tales – The Prosecutor’s wife’s death, the Commissioner’s family sickness or the Mayor’s concerns regarding his community, we learn the story of the region. We see the moral struggle of each character through the eyes of the Doctor who silently observes the events of the night and shares his thoughts whenever his guidance is needed. His persona is just as enigmatic as the natural beauty of the region, but just as mysterious and dangerous. He appears to be wholesome and sensible at first, but with the last few minutes of the film our certainty about the Doctor’s characteristics is turned upside down. To call him unethical would be both over-exaggeration and understatement; he fails to maintain his integrity as a fellow human being, but Ceylan uses his moral ambiguity to represent the character of Anatolia. As such the Doctor remains mysterious and complex.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia isn’t necessarily my favourite film of Ceylan, but here more than in any other of his movies, his bold stylistic approach elevates us to a completely new level of the directorial “audaciousness.” His complete disinterest in providing entertainment is both refreshing and venerable. For the first time Ceylan avoids any kind of visual trickery. Instead he composes his film by assembling long, steady shots intertwined with close-ups of characters’ faces and shots of the nature. The journey into the uninhabited parts of Anatolia is a journey back in time. We end up in the fields, with the wind gushing through the tree branches; we come across a small village where the monotonous existence needs to overcome electricity shortages and lack of resources. The film is a mosaic of the beautiful landscapes of Anatolia and the people whose lives are bound with the region’s history. Ceylan’s Turkey thrills and fascinates. And so do his films. 

Bullhead and the European conventionalism's affair with the Academy

Jacky Vanmarsenille has his testicles smashed as a young boy by one of his peers and is subjected to a series of hormonal injections for the rest of his life. Talking about a crisis of masculinity! Jacky’s concept of maleness is from this moment forth reshaped and associated purely with appearances; his need to fill the gap left by the destroyed gland urges him to experiment with new types of hormonal injections to make him appear closer to what he imagines to be a genuine man. Yet the outcome of his experiments is overblown, grotesque. The substance he takes in makes him more aggressive, agitated and emotionally unstable. Jacky compares himself with the cattle that he breeds on his farm which similarly to him is given illegal drugs to boost their mass. He calls himself a beast.

Bullhead is a gangster film which takes a very atypical approach to the usual model of the genre. It revisits the masculine drive for power and re-evaluates the meaning of a macho figure in contemporary West. The Fleming-Belgian setting makes the issue of masculine projections even more vivid. The mutual repugnance of each region is driven by the centuries-long history of violence and political rebellion and continues to heat the relations between the Francophone and Flemish Belgians to this day.

Jacky is caught in the middle of this ongoing conflict, both as a victim and a perpetrator of the wrongdoings. Betrayed by his closest friend when still a child, he is attacked and mutilated by the local Mafioso’s son, and ostracised by the local society. There is a very Shakespearian dimension to Jacky’s tragedy. His fate is determined by the surrounding social disadvantages and Jacky is unable to divert his steps from the path that leads him directly to his own doom. Just like with the bulls who are destined for the slaughter, death is the only possible way out for him.

Why was Bullhead nominated for an Oscar is a bit of a mystery – although it is a decent film, it doesn’t represent anything particularly exceptional. My theory is that the Academy has a thing for all kinds of tragic morality tales and so every year it picks a film that falls into that category... Similarly to last year’s Incendies, or The Prophet from two years ago, Bullhead tries to enquire about the “circle of violence” and its wider, social implications. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking but aesthetically conventional at the same time. I wish more risks were taken in the narrative department, but then that would probably lose the film’s chance for a nomination.