The Daughters of Fire (Las hijas del fuego, Argentina, 2018)

Polyamorous and Queer

This is a startling film for a number of reasons. Most obvious is the nature of the representations of sexual intercourse, which are the most explicit I’ve seen. Compared to In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korîda, Japan, 1976) and The Idiots (Idioterne, Denmark-Spain-Sweden-France-Netherlands-Italy, 1998), for example, both of which feature hardcore sex, this film raises the bar for arthouse explicitness. The film even trumps Gaspar Noé’s provocations (at least the ones I’ve seen such as Love) as this is indisputably a pornographic film. Director Albertina Carri (she also co-wrote with Analía Couceyro) does use the narrative as a frame for moving on to the next sex scene. I can’t remember where I read that pornography is like the musical: in the latter the narrative moves us on to the next ‘song and dance’ number; in the former it is for the ‘moan and grope’ sequences. However the film is also more than porn.

Carri, whose short film Barbie Can also Be Sad (Barbie también puede estar triste, Argentina, 2002) is reputably also worth a watch, has made an meta-porn movie using arthouse techniques to on comment and question what we are seeing. This is primarily through the voiceover of one of the characters who embark on a road trip (to stop one of their mothers selling a car!) where they pick up women along the way. Inés Duacastella’s cinematography beautifully captures the austere landscapes of Patagonia; I’m not sure but I think they are headed south toward Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world (continent) which is named after fire. Road movies usually lead characters to learn about themselves, but this bunch are already full of knowledge about their sexuality and apparently need little more. In this sense, the spaces they move through are utopian; there are no psychological impediments to their lasciviousness. They are challenging patriarchy and have little problem dispensing with the two homophobic misogynists they come across: a utopian space indeed!

Carri’s crew was apparently virtually all female and although I found the film intensely erotic I (heterosexual male) am not the target audience. I suspect many will find the graphic sex scenes too much to view but the film is clearly more than porn (listen to the interesting discussion between academics José Arroyo and Deborah Shaw). (I’m trying to avoid ‘protesting too much’ so it seems I’m justifying watching porn).

There are moments of great beauty in the film. The hallucinogenic sequence when the characters take mushrooms, where imagery of sea life is superimposed on the image, is particularly stunning. Whilst not going the whole Godardian hog of alienating the spectator from the film with the voiceover, Carri does enough to get us thinking about what we are seeing. The final, long take, of a woman masturbating reminded of the scene in Godard’s British Sounds (UK, 1970) where a naked woman stands on a stairway with a Marxist-Leninist tract on the soundtrack (as I remember it at least). The content of the shot is such that the viewer is interrogated as much as the image.

The film’s showing on MUBI for a while and is available on at least one pornographic website, an interesting platform for an arthouse movie.

Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao Redor, Brazil, 2012)

Trapped by wealth and history

It was good to catch up with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s debut film after being wowed by Aquarius and Bacurau. Its narrative is like the latter’s in terms of lacking a clear protagonist and both share a political dimension. However, it lacks the thrust of his latest movie as it offers a mosaic of life in an upmarket housing complex in Recife, Filho’s home town. Like the roaming Steadicam of the opening shot, we spend our time with different neighbours: Maeve Jinkings’ Bia, a bored housewife tormented by next door’s howling dog; Joao (Gustavo Jahn) who works, unhappily, as his grandfather’s estate agent; Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) who at first appears to be a hustler offering street security. Minor problems, a broken into car, a receptionist asleep on the job, seem to all the conflict available to drive the narrative forward.

The film actually begins with a montage of photographs that seem to be from colonial era sugar plantations; the patriarchal grandfather (WJ Solha) bemoans the fact his family no longer visit the sugar mill. The purpose of these images is not clear until the very end. I say ‘not clear’, I mean not to me whose knowledge of Brazilian history is extremely limited. While indigenous audiences are always likely to get more from a film, in this case I suspect it is substantially more.

Filho, an ex-film critic, came to directing in his 40s (he also wrote the script) and has clearly absorbed all the ‘lessons’ of making films. The sense of space could easily have been confusing as we buzz about different apartments, but the film is skilfully constructed to ensure we know where we are. There are a couple of odd moments: a couple steal into a apparently empty apartment to have sex and, in a horror movie moment, a person suddenly runs past the bedroom doorway! And when Joao is standing underneath a waterfall, whilst on a visit to the countryside, the torrent of water suddenly turns red. Whilst the former moment is not explained, the expressionist purpose of the latter is made clear at the end.

If I sound somewhat disengaged from the film then that was my experience. It clocks in at over two hours and Filho makes few concessions to entertainment, though there is some humour (the gag with the boy and his football should have run longer) and some sex scenes. That said, the cumulative effect of experiencing a slice of affluent Brazilian life, contextualised by the ending, is more than worth the effort.

It is certainly an antidote to the ‘poverty porn’ of City of God (, Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) and has some similarities to the Mexican La Zona, though that was much more genre based.

The Silence (Tystnaden, Sweden, 1963)

Diametrically opposed sisters

I’m an absolute sucker for Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro cinematography allied to Ingmar Bergman’s deep focus compositions. In The Silence they are welded in a chamber drama of two sisters at war: one lasciviously animistic; the other cooly intellectual until she accepts the truth of her imminent death. The 1960s were probably the height of arthouse cinema in terms of the acceptance by audiences, however minority, of abstruse narratives and we are plunged into a strange world without explanation. The sisters, Ingrid Thulin’s Ester and Gunnel Lindblom’s Anna, are travelling through an unidentifiable east European state either in the throes of, of gearing up for, war. Anna’s young son, Johan, is with them and the opening, on a train, sets the tone that we are as much inhabiting a psychological as a physical landscape; the unscrolling landscape is obviously a back projection.

In Hamish Ford’s interesting Sounds of Cinema review, he quotes Bergman as saying: “It follows Bartók’s music rather closely – the dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion.”. Ford notes a ticking clock is heard at the start and end of the film (it could be a metronome in keeping with the musical metaphor), no doubt indicative of our lives’ movement toward their inevitable end. Bergman’s existential angst, which often seems mangled up in misogyny, plays out as the sisters vie for psychological supremacy. I must confess that I spent most of the film unclear on what the heavily portentous goings-on actually meant, but I was never less than engaged. Knowing Bartok didn’t help.

The film was a hit, probably because of the (for the time) explicit representations of sex. Ester masturbates whilst Anna witnesses a couple having sex in a theatre and seduces a waiter for the same purpose. I’m sure that this was the reason the film was successful with audiences though it was to Bergman’s chagrin:

“One is always glad when a film is a success. Be then, when I discovered why it was a success, and how many of the people who were going to see it were saying furiously they’d never again go and see an Ingmar Bergman film, I was terrified.” (Bergman on Bergman, Björkman, Manns and Sima, 1973: 180)

I’ll take his statement at face value, though it should be noted that the relative explicitness of arthouse cinema was one of the reasons why it became so popular in the post-war period. As I wrote in Introduction to Film (which is going cheap on Amazon at the moment!):

‘Although art-cinema’s increasing popularity was relative, and was always far below the mainstream’s, there is little doubt that the presence of (female) nudity in Summer With Monika (Sommeren med Monika, Sweden, 1953) helped establish director Ingmar Bergman as a favourite.

‘Films such as this helped break the censor’s stranglehold. The nudity would not have raised many eyebrows in un-puritanical Scandinavia. Because the nudity was not obviously sensational, and the film was received as art (putting it, in cultural terms, on a similar level as the nude of Renaissance painting) and consumed by a middle-class audience, it was harder to justify it being censored. In addition, these films, produced abroad, had no obligation to the Production Code.’ (Lacey, 2016: 118)

Even if I finished The Silence unsure of what I’d experienced there are some moments of direct emotional power. For instance, when Ester has an ‘attack’ (I’m guessing she has TB) and rails against death. I don’t think the strength of the scene was accentuated by the fact the ‘grim reaper’ is abroad great numbers worldwide at the moment due to the pandemic; the position of the shot, at the head of her bed, and Thulin’s performance are enough to make it terrifying. The film is available on MUBI for another four days.

 

Chaotic Ana (Caótica Ana, Spain, 2007)

Jungian journey

Writer-director Julio Medem can be guaranteed to get you thinking with a narrative graced with ravishing imagery and likely much nudity, particularly female. Chaotic Ana (newcomer Manuela Vellés) suddenly finds she has visions linking her to (possible) past selves, women who died young and violently at the hands of men. Her life as a naive artist in Ibiza, where she lives with her dad in a cave on the coast, is disrupted by Charlotte Rampling’s Justine (presumably named after de Sade’s character but the reason for this I can’t fathom) who runs an artists’ colony in Madrid. Here Ana meets video artist Linda (Bebe Rebolledo) and Said (Nicolas Cazalé), with whom she enters into an intimate relationship. She discovers she can dream for the first time and, under hypnosis, filmed by Linda, she investigates what might be her past. The paintings that had so enraptured Justine were doors on the cave dwelling walls: doors and dreaming = Jungian psychoanalysis. For many this will be a problem: Jung as hokum or as insight? It’s the former for me, however I’m willing to suspend disbelief in return for interesting narratives and Medem certainly succeeds on that level. There are moments (like when Ana appears on Linda’s dad’s boat) where credulity is over-stretched (I assumed it was a dream for a few minutes) but there are enough ideas whirling around to engage to the end.

At the end Medem has flung in American aggression in the Iraq war (UK was culpable too) in a very strange scene with an American politician. We also end up in Arizona (Ford’s mesas and buttes are on show) at an Native American Reservation that, as aquarello concludes is:

‘an awkward juxtaposition [for the film] that proves especially flawed during a pivotal encounter at a Navajo bar, where Medem’s trenchant parallel illustration of dispossession and institutional segregation between the Native American reservations in the US and the refugee camps of displaced Saharans in the Middle East – and by extension, the Iraqi occupation that has also resulted in geographic factionalism along ethnic and tribal lines – is undermined by the facile sight gag of a patron’s inebriated uncoordination.’

The refugee camps in Africa are drawn into the narrative via the mysterious Said and there is a degree of Orientalism in his representation. The film was dedicated to Medem’s sister Ana, an artist who was killed in a car crash in 2001. Clearly the film is a form of therapy for the director, which explains the narrative lacunas.  Her beautiful paintings are used as her namesake’s in the film and knowledge of her death adds to the melancholy that infuses the movie.

Zama, (Argentina-Brazil-Spain-Dominican Republic-France-Netherlands-Mexico-Switzerland-USA-Portugal-Lebanon, 2017)

Wishing he weren’t there

Coincidentally just after Monos I’ve found myself landed with another Latin American-set ‘hallucinatory’ film. Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a corregidor (colonial administrator), is desperate to get back to his family; I assumed they were in Spain but reviews suggest they are in Buenos Aires. I think I can’t be blamed for my uncertainty because the film presents its narrative information tangentially; details aren’t clearly explained. Although he appears to be of European stock (he could be mixed race), he was born in the Americas and doesn’t feel he belongs in the outpost he’s duty-bound to look after. He petitions the Governor to write a letter to the King (of Spain) on his behalf but as the latter points out, the King always ignores the first and a second will be required… in two years time. Writer-director Lucretia Martel (based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel), in her first fiction film since The Headless Womandoesn’t spell out detail; like Zama we have to negotiate our way through the world of the film. In one scene, when Zama is pleading with the Governor, a lama appears, unnoticed by him, at his side; it’s a surreal touch suggesting it is a place that neither he nor we can comprehend. As Lola Dueñas’ character tells Cacho, ‘Europe is best remembered by people who have never been there’; place is as much myth as reality.

Surreal reality

Martel used a similar technique in The Headless Woman, where the uncertainty was narratively motivated by the bang on the head the protagonist receives at the start. In Zama the incomprehension is stimulated by the setting: whilst colonists can subjugate peoples and land, they cannot control the place that they don’t really know. The natives are barely characters in the film, they go about their work in the background, tolerating the  invaders. At the start, Zama is caught spying on naked native women covering themselves with mud; one protests and he beats her for her troubles. In a nutshell, the colonial power relationship is portrayed. This marginalisation, which in, say, the colonial set films of classical Hollywood was racist, here is a portrayal of the realpolitik.

The pursuit of the legendary-mythical bandit that fills the final third of the film reminded me of Antonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha’s similarly hallucinatory film set in Brazil’s sertão. When the bandit, Vicuña Porto, is found there’s no certainty that he is actually who he says he is. As Porto says, ‘it is only a name’. It’s striking that the actor I thought was playing the character who might be Porto is different to the one, Brazilian Matheus Nachtergaele, who’s listed in the imdb credits as possibly being him. The gang’s desperation to find the jewel-filled coconuts reminded me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre… maybe there is something about Latin America…

Martel gets great performances from the cast; Cacho and Lola Dueñas, as the flirt he longs for, are particularly good. And Martel is one of the most interesting directors around; there’s nothing wrong with being made to work for your pleasure.

Monos (Colombia-Argentina-Netherlands-Germany-Sweden-Uruguay-USA-Switzerland-Denmark, 2019)

On the edge

Alejandro Landes’ extraordinary film (he co-wrote with Alex Dos Santos and directed) takes a bit of absorbing. Partly this is to do with the lack of context given to the teenage guerillas, who are holding a kidnapped American hostage. Given Landes is Colombian it is obvious to think they are part of Farc, anti-government guerillas who seem to have recently taken up arms again having disbanded two years ago. Wilson Salazar, who plays Messenger, was a member of Farc. However, to try and place the film in a socio-political context would be wrong as Landes is clearly angling for a mythological portrayal of youngsters under dehumanising pressure. Despite that, the final scene evokes Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s.

Clear frames of reference are William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) – a pig’s head makes an appearance – and Apocalypse Now! (US, 1979) without, as noted by Peter Bradshaw, Kurtz. The film starts in the Andes before descending to the jungle and the shoot sounds almost as gruelling as that experienced by Coppola and his crew. The cinematography, by Jaspar Wolf, whether in the highlands or in the depths of the river, is stunningly beautiful and includes some fantastic action sequences in rapids that outshine many action films. It’s difficult to understand how the film was produced for a minuscule $2m.

Hearts of darkness

The ambiguities in the film are further enhanced by the casting (many of the actors are first-timers) as there is a gender fluidity to Sofia Buenaventura’s character, Rambo, which requires a ‘double take’. This hallucinatory quality, reminding me of Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, W.Germany-Mexico-Peru, 1972), is narratively enhanced when the youngsters take (magic) mushrooms. In addition, Mica Levi’s sensational score adds to the way the film unbalances the spectator; as in Under the Skin her music isn’t generally used to cue narrative moments or emotion but to contribute to the image. At moments of high intensity her grinding electronica perfectly enhances the moment by almost overloading the spectator with sound. The film also refuses to offer a character for whom we can easily root for.

It’s a film that I need to see again to get my head around. Monos, by the way, is Spanish for monkeys and, presumably, refers to the fact that the veneer of civilisation is thin, to say the least. I think such a trope is unfair on animals whose behaviour is, by definition, never uncivilised.

Loveless (Nelyubov (Russia-France-Germany-Belgium, 2017)

Haunting absence

I found Andrey Zvyagintsev’s first film, The Return, absolutely gripping but, despite the critical plaudits, Leviathan (Leviafan, Russia, 2014) left me cold (I probably need to see it again). It also failed to impress the Russian Minster for Culture as it wasn’t patriotic enough so Loveless turned to European money to be made. Whilst Loveless doesn’t match The Return, it is a gripping and beautiful film; the beauty is rather austere deriving from its compositions and bleak winter landscapes. It concerns a divorcing couple whose 12-year-old son is seen to be an impediment to the new lives they plan to pursue.

Some critics (for example, the Sight & Sound review) complained about what they saw as heavy-handed symbolism; and even Jonathan Romney, who is sympathetic to the film, argued that the use of mobile phones and laptops as signifiers of modern alienation is clichéd (both March 2018). While Zvyagintsev is not a realist filmmaker he does situate his films in particular times and places (most of the action takes place in a Moscow suburb in 2012) and so if his characters are umbilically linked to their computer technology it is difficult not to show it. The sugar-rush of notifications and messages have addicted a fair proportion of humanity it seems and a film about alienation would struggle not include this technology.

I liked the film but it rarely seemed to transcend the characters’ banality (not a criticism). There are a few virtuoso moments when we see altruistic volunteers (who actually exist, they help people find missing persons as the police are able to do little) seek the missing son: an abandoned and decrepit Soviet-era swimming pool and a massive military satellite dish loom out of the woods. Misinformation features in news reports, about the end of the world and the war in Ukraine, showing Russia suffers similar news problems to our own.

The performances, particularly Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin as the rotting couple, are excellent; Rozin also appeared in Zvyagintsev’s Elena (Russia, 2011), which I enjoyed. Loveless features more explicit sex than I’ve seen in any Russian film (maybe I’ve not been watching the right ones!) and it not shot voyeuristically but as another signifier of decadence (in the sense that the result of sex, the son, is neglected).

Romney also suggests that arthouse films no longer appeal to a younger generation that have grown up in the postmodern world of accelerated imagery. Although that is a statement of fogeyism, it may be true. Box office for arthouse films, that is those that are self-consciously portentous, is rapidly diminishing suggesting that bourgeois tastes have migrated to something else; it doesn’t matter what it is, just that it be fashionable.