Friday, October 5, 2012

Vancouver International Film Festival 2012: Part One


With Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen established his mastery of the cinematic essay. With Reconversao, his study of the works of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, he moves into the realm of the cinematic epigram. Blending Andersen’s own pithy observations with interviews and texts from Souto de Moura, the film offers a fascinating running commentary while portraying the architect’s work through stop-motion photography. It’s a curious stylistic choice, but one that ultimately does justice to the work: trees turn into amorphous masses of green and car lights burst into exploding stars, leaving the unmoving buildings at the centre of the convulsive world. Souto de Moura muses on the divide between building and nature, dismissing the false romanticism of ruins while embracing decay in his own work. He makes for a superb documentary subject—obsessive, observant, acutely aware of the subtle influences of architecture on the human mind, and not above the occasional dab of pungent humour. In short, a Portuguese Thom Andersen.

A Story for the Modlins 

Sergio Oksman’s short A Story for the Modlins leads with its best trick: the film begins with the credits to Rosemary’s Baby. Confused, spectators craned their necks at the projection booth, wondering if someone mixed up reels. Then the film begins to fast-forward, and we are transferred from Roman Polanski’s horror to one of an entirely different stripe—a horror of thwarted ambition and family cruelty, Polanski’s devlish family replaced with Oksman’s pious oddballs. Built around the life of Elmer Modlin, a nameless extra in Rosemary’s Baby, the film uses a striking mixture of photographs and grainy videos to show the delusional artistic ambitions of Elmer and Margaret, his painter wife. Their only son is driven away by their increasingly hermetic lives, leaving the couple to spend their days bringing Margaret’s deranged spiritual visions to life. Often funny, the film’s strength becomes a weakness when Oksman makes a sudden turn towards pathos at the end. It’s hard to feel too much pity for a family you’ve just spent twenty minutes laughing at.

Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day 

Is this the coyest zombie movie ever? A horde of young Lisbonites descend upon the early-morning city, lurching forward so haltingly that one wonders if they are undead or merely really hung over. Some are covered in blood, while others drop to the ground and heave their guts out. Largely silent, the film’s characters are essentially faceless, but one youth stands out for the small red flower he carries—part of a tradition carried out by couples on Saint Anthony’s Day. Everything feels like a lark, an art-film goof on zombie tropes, right up until the final scene when director Joao Pedro Rodrigues at last tips his hand with a single dramatic gesture and a few lines from Fernando Pessoa. The film revels in loneliness as an apocalyptic condition—a notion rendered simultaneously lovely and absurd under the director’s discerning eye.

The Capsule 

Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenburg was a lo-fi cinematic gem, a scruffy deadpan riff on sexual confusion as nature documentary. Who could have expected her follow-up would be to run many of the same ideas through a surrealist dream machine, with late-period Jan Svankmajer serving as one of her stylistic templates? (Seriously, a show of hands, please.) A mere 35 minutes in length, The Capsule is a dense, dazzling tour through the sexual politics of a group of seven women living in an isolated manor. Describing narrative is largely irrelevant when dealing with a film where characters are birthed by domestic furnishings (one emerges from a cluster of chairs, while another rises out of a mattress). The film’s power is only momentarily dispelled by some questionably tacky animation, which is at odds with Tsangari’s more physical imagery. More often, however, Tsangari calls upon high style and high fashion to give flight to her opulent fantasies, and the result is a sensuous nightmare of domination and control. And top prize for the best goats at VIFF this year—a surprisingly competitive category—goes to the film’s well-coiffed herd of fashion-conscious ruminants.

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