Cinema of Belgium


It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Best because a dizzying number of big and important projects surfaced this year and worst because I haven’t even been able to see even a fraction of that number, even though my film viewing hit an all-time high this December, That last bit was possible thanks to the city’s major international film festival, the first full-fledged fest that I’ve ever attended – a key event as far as my cinephilia is concerned. Although, I must admit, none of the new titles I saw at the fest blew me away, I was surprised by a handful of films that I think deserve wider exposure. (I’m thinking specifically of Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s debut film Heat Wave, a tragic, graceful hyperlionk movie in which piecing together the disorienting geography of Marseilles becomes as important as piecing together the four intersecting narratives.) Instead of continuing apologetically to emphasize my viewing gaps and to rationalize the countless number of entries on my to-see list, I present you another list, The Top 10 Films I Didn’t See This Year: (1) House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, an indisputable masterpiece, probably) (2) Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs) (3) Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) (4) This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) (5) Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz) (6) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To) (7) The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) (8) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) (9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) (10) La Havre (Aki Kaurismaki). Now that that’s out of my system, here are my favorites from the ones I did get to see.

1. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary)


The Turin HorseFor a number of films this year, the end of the world became some sort of a theme park ride taken with ease, but none of them ventured as far as Béla Tarr’s mesmerizing, awe-inspiring farewell to cinema. With The Turin Horse, Tarr’s filmmaking traverses the whole gamut, moving away from the wordy realist pictures of his early phase to this extreme abstraction suggesting, in Godard’s phrasing, a farewell to language itself. Centering on a man, his daughter and their horse as they eke out a skeletal existence in some damned plain somewhere in Europe, The Turin Horse is the last chapter of a testament never written, an anti-Genesis narrative that finds God forsaking the world and leaving it to beings on earth to sort it all out by themselves. Tarr’s film is a remarkable cinematic achievement, primal in its physicality and elemental in its force. Nothing this year was so laden with doom and so brimming with hope at once as the ultimate image of the film, where father and daughter – now awakened, perhaps – sit in the darkness with nothing to confront but each other.

2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)


A SeparationAsghar Farhadi’s super-modest yet supremely ambitious chronicle of class conflict in Tehran is a massive deconstruction project that strikes right at the heart of systems that define us. Accumulating detail upon detail and soaking the film in the ambiguity that characterizes the real world, A Separation reveals the utter failure of binary logic – which not only forms the foundation of institutions such as justice but also permeates and petrifies our imagination – in dealing with human dilemmas. Farhadi’s centrism is not a form of bourgeois neutrality that plagues many a war movies, it is a recognition that truth lies somewhere in the recesses between the contours of language, law and logic. Working with unquantifiable parameters such as irrationality and doubt, Farhadi’s film is something of an aporia in the discourses that surround cinema and reality and an urgent call for revaluation of approaches towards critical problems in general. Rigorously shot, edited and directed, A Separation is a genuinely empathetic yet highly intelligent slice of reality in all its messy complexity and breathtaking grace.

3. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)


The Tree of LifeJuxtaposing the cosmic, the macroscopic and the infinite with the particular, the everyday and the finite, Terrence Malick’s fifth film The Tree of Life seeks to ask big questions. It is here that the director’s longstanding philosophical concerns find perfect articulation and efficacy in the specific form of the film. Seamlessly shifting between perspectives both all-knowing and limited, The Tree of Life posits the existence of a single shared consciousness across time and place, only a small part of which is each human being. It is also Malick’s most phenomenological film and mostly unfolds as a series of sensory impressions that both invites and resists interpretation. An awe-instilling tug-of-war between finitude and permanence, omniscience and ignorance, narrativization and immediate experience and rationalization and incomprehension, Malick’s unabashed celebration of the birth of consciousness – in general and in specific forms – locates the particular in the universal and vice versa. What lingers in the mind more than the grand ideas, though, are extremely minor details, which is pretty much what the medium must aspire to achieve.

4. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, UK)


The Story of FilmA scandalous history, a disproportionate sense of importance and a frustrating accent. Critic-Filmmaker Mark Cousins’ project to present the story of cinema as a 15-part TV series appears doomed right from the conceptualization stage: can you even attempt to tell a story of film without omitting whole schools of filmmaking or national cinemas? Omit it certainly does, and unapologetically so, but when Cousins chronologically hops from one country to another, halting at particular films, scenes or even shots, providing commentary that is as insightful as they come and situating them in the larger scheme of things, you wouldn’t hesitate to lower your guard. Not only does Cousins’ 900-minute tribute to filmdom introduce us to names in world cinema rarely discussed about, but also presents newer approaches to canonical entries. Admirably inclusive (Matthew Barney and Baz Luhrmann find adjacent seats, so do Youssef Chahine and Steven Spielberg) and never condescending, The Story of Film exhibits towards the history of the form a sensitivity comparable to the finest of film criticism.

5. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK)


We Need to Talk About KevinWhat is stressed in Lynne Ramsay’s rattling third feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is not only the continuity between mother and son, but also the essential discontinuity. Where does the mother end and where does the son begin? Every inch of space between actors resonates with this dreadful ambiguity. The film is as much about Eva’s birth from the stifling womb of motherhood as it is Kevin’s apparent inability to be severed from her umbilical cord. Every visual in Ramsay’s chronicle of blood and birth works on three levels – literal, symbolic and associative – the last of which links the images of the film in subtle, subconscious and thoroughly unsettling ways. For the outcast Eva, the past bleeds into the present and every object, sound and gesture becomes a living, breathing reminder of whatever has been put behind. Ramsay’s intuitive, sensual approach to colour, composition and sound locates her directly in the tradition of the Surrealists and deems this unnerving, shattering, personal genre work as one of the most exciting pieces of cinema this year.

6. Life In A Day (Various, Various)


Life in a DayAn heir to the ideas of Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin, Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day is a moving, bewildering, charming, frustrating and dizzying snapshot of Planet Earth in all its glory, stupidity and complexity on a single day in 2011. An endless interplay of presence and absence, familiar and exotic, lack and excess, similarity and difference, the homogenous and the un-normalizable and the empowered and the marginalized, Life in a Day is a virtually inexhaustible film that is a strong testament to how many of us lived together on this particular planet on this particular day of this particular year. (That it represents only a cross section of the world population is a complaint that is subsumed by the film’s observations.) Each shot, loaded with so much cultural content, acts as a synecdoche, suggesting a dense social, political and historical network underneath. Most importantly, it taps right into the dread of death that accompanies cinematography: the heightened awareness of the finitude of existence and experience and the direct confrontation with the passing of time.

7. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK)


Kill ListOn the surface, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List comes across like a sick B-movie with a mischievous sense of plotting, but on closer examination, it reveals itself as a serious work with clear-cut philosophical and political inclination. That its philosophy is inseparable from its mind-bending narrative structure makes it a very challenging beast. Kill List is the kind of kick in the gut that video games must strive to emulate if they aspire to become art. Indeed, Wheatley’s chameleon of a film borrows much from video games – from its division of a mission into stages announced by intertitles to the third-person-shooter aesthetic that it segues into – making us complicit with the protagonist and his moral attitude, later pulling the rug from our feet and leaving us afloat. Early in the film, Iraq war veteran and protagonist Jay mumbles that it was better if he was fighting the Nazis – at least, he would know who the enemy was. He learns the hard way that this ‘othering’ of the enemy into a mass of unidentifiable groups is a psychological strategy to protect and redeem himself, that it’s judgment that defeats us.

8. Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)


Sleeping BeautyYour vagina will be a temple” one elderly procurer assures Lucy, a twenty something university student who takes up odd jobs to pay her fees. Not only is the vagina a temple in Julia Leigh’s markedly assured debut feature, but the human body itself is a space that is to be furnished, maintained and rented out for public use. Leigh’s vehemently anti-realist examination of continuous privatization of the public and publicization of the private works against any kind of psychological or sociological realism, instead unfolding as an academic study of the human body as a site of control. Setting up a dialectic between pristine, clinical public spaces and messy, emotional private ones, Sleeping Beauty attempts to explore not our relationship to the spaces that we inhabit, but also to the space that we ourselves are. Consistently baffling and irreducible, Leigh’s film displays an eccentric yet surefooted approach to design, composition and framing, revealing the presence of a personality beneath. Sleeping Beauty is, for me, the most impressive debut film of the year.

9. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)


The Kid with a BikeThe Dardenne brothers have turned out to be the preeminent documentarians of our world and their latest wonder The Kid with a Bike sits alongside their best works as an unadorned, incisive portrait of our time. Admittedly inspired by fairly tales, Dardennes’ film might appear like an archetypal illustration of innocence lured by the devil, but its parameters are all drawn from here and now. Structured as a series of transactions – persons, objects, moral grounds – where human interaction is inextricably bound to the movement of physical objects, the film presents our world as one defined by exchanges of all kind, but never reduces this observation to some cynical reading of life as a business. Also characteristic of Dardennes’ universe is the intense physicality that pervades each shot. Be it the boy scurrying about on foot or on bike or the countless number of doors that are opened and closed, the Dardennes, once more, show us that cinema must concern itself with superficies and it is on the surface of things that one can find depth.

10. The Monk (Dominik Moll, France/Spain)


The MonkDominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ eponymous novel concerning a self-righteous priest tempted by the devil could be described as an intervention of late nineteenth century tools – psychoanalysis and cinema – into a late eighteenth century text. Located on this side of the birth of psychoanalysis, Moll’s film comes across as essentially Freudian in the way it portrays the titular monk as a human being flawed by design and the church, society and family as institutions responsible for suppressing those basic impulses. Incest, rape and murder abound as hell breaks loose, but the film’s sympathy is clearly with the devil. The Monk uses an array of early silent cinema techniques including a schema that combines an impressionistic illustration of the protagonist’s sensory experience and expressionistic mise en scène to signal his irreversible descent into decadence. Alternating between metallic blues of the night and sun bathed brown, Moll’s film teeters on the obscure boundary between Good and Evil. Exquisitely composed and expertly realized, The Monk supplies that irresistible dose of classicism missing in the other films on this list.

Jiabiangou (2010) (The Ditch)
Wang Bing
Mandarin

 

The DitchWang Bing’s The Ditch (2010), the filmmaker’s first full-length fictional feature, is a recreation of Jiabiangou Labour Camp located in the Gobi desert, where prisoners accused of belonging to the Right were sent in order to be “re-educated” through hard labour. We see prisoners being brutalized, living continuously in starvation and in pathetic trenches. We see them surviving on small critters, regurgitated food particles and even buried corpses. There are two kinds of landscapes that they inhabit – the seemingly-infinite plains of the desert where they toil during the day time and the cramped and under-lit trenches that they take refuge during the night – both of which Wang shoots characteristically in digital video on Steadicam and in long shots. The result has the hangover of Wang’s documentary features and each scene comes across less like illusionary fiction and more like the recording of a performance. The acting, likewise, is perched between the emotive and the expressionless. Consequently, Wang’s foray into the grammar of conventional fictional cinema – the occasional shot-reverse shot and close-ups – sticks out as high relief. No doubt, like Brutality Factory (2007), his first stab at fiction, he’s dealing with thin material here that concerns itself more with the need to remember than with the necessity of analytically dealing with history. This approach – the raison d’être of his best non-fiction works – reveals itself as a substitute for straightforward documentation and intentionally swaps prison dynamics for a survival sketch. However, there is one ironic detail that Wang seems to be arriving at here: that Mao’s re-education program at the camp for purported Rightist subversives only teaches them one thing: Every man for himself.

Vénus Noire (2010) (Black Venus)
Abdellatif Kechiche
French/Afrikaans/English

 

Black VenusAbdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (2010) opens with a scene set in the Royal Academy of Medicine, Paris during the year 1815, in which we see a group of biologists studying the preserved cadaver of an African woman. We learn that she was Saartjes Baartman (Yahima Torres, in a no-holds-barred, one-of-a-kind performance), a South Arican native who migrated to London (and, later, Paris) and allowed herself to be displayed by her employer as a savage in front of curious, paying customers. We see the ruthless physical and racial harassment – not entirely without her consent – that she undergoes. We also see that her status as an ethnic outsider cuts across class (the rich libertines of Paris as well as the proles of London throng to see her) and gender (there are, in fact, more women than men during these shows) divides. Structured as a series of exhibitions – classroom lectures, freak shows, courtroom hearings, party entertainment – Black Venus chiefly concerns itself with the process of comprehending, through the acts of seeing, hearing and touching. Saartjes becomes something of a litmus test for each set of audience, which affirms its own identity and view of the world though her radical ‘otherness’. (That these events take place just after the French Revolution produces interesting implications). During the five years she spends in Europe, Saartjes finds herself increasingly objectified (from a savage, to an exotic body, to an amalgam of unusual body parts) and mystified (that is, she becomes a sum of perceptions). Although overlong and overdetermined, Black Venus weaves a bracing film out of a devastating life story, a testament of whose power is the epilogue of the film, where we see Saartjes’ remains being returned by the French government to South Africa for her final rites.

 

(Image Courtesy: Slant Magazine)

Rosetta (1999)
Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
French

 

RosettaDardenne brothers’ finest film Rosetta (1999) is what remains after you have run it through all possible theoretical discourses. (Funny as it sounds, for all its anti-psychological bent, Dardennes’ cinema lends itself best to psychoanalysis, with abounding mother-son, mother-daughter and father-son relationships across the films). A genuinely humanistic work that just can not be accommodated without conflict into a single, rigid world view, Rosetta finds the Dardennes’ hand-held, long-shot, “being there” realism at the peak of its prowess. There is a keen sense of space, of lived time and of felt experiences here. With an astonishing, naturalistic sound design that carries as much importance as the image (the irritating noise of the moped, for instance, virtually reveals the whole dynamics of specific scenes, without the help of a single image), There is no moral simplification or any sort of condescension that marks many otherwise empathetic films dealing with the working class. Through Rosetta’s actions, which cannot be easily classified into right and wrong, the Dardennes provoke a reassessment of the audience’s own political stance (especially the liberal one, wherein the just and the lawful are generally assumed to be at loggerheads with each other). More than any other of their films, it is here that we sense and feel the physicality of the Dardennes’ unvarnished world the most. When Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne) is pushed into the bog, we choke, when she finds her drunkard mother down at the doorstep, we let out a sigh of exhaustion and when she struggles to carry the gas cylinder home to do the unthinkable, we want to reach out and take it away from her hands. Harsh, harsh, harsh, harsh, harsh, just harsh.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) (aka Jeanne Dielman)
Chantal Akerman
French

“I used less water than last time, so it tastes better”

 

Jeanne DielmanChantal Akerman’s most famous film gives away all that is factual about it in its name itself. The rest of it follows what the titular Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) does in this 23, Commerce Quay, 1080 Bruxelles house of hers, over a three day period in almost in its entirety. Using completely stationery cameras, Akerman creates a claustrophobic document of life in its most mundane form. Even with a screen time of over three hours, there isn’t much in the movie that could be fit into something called plot. That, precisely, is Akerman’s intention. Details are given with extreme reluctance and in exceedingly small measures (with hardly 10 minutes of spoken dialogue). On the first day, we witness Jeanne ritualistically moving about in her house, switching on and off the room lights, cooking potatoes for her obedient son, arranging tables, doing the dishes and making the bed. She earns by selling herself during the afternoons in her very house. All this is done by the book, if there ever was one.

It is precisely these systematic acts which become our reference for the next day. The next day follows almost the same pattern. Only that Jeanne drops a spoon and the polishing brush. Oh yes, she also goofs up the dinner! On the third day, the bank is closed, she reaches a shop before it opens, the coffee is spoilt and a button snaps off from her son’s blazer. This is all the change that Akerman allows Jeanne. What surfaces is a gradually progressive deviation from our “reference” and perhaps for the worse. Like the geometrically flawless décor and lighting of the film, which exude cheerfulness, contentment and sanity are only apparent. It is almost as if one can mathematically calculate, using these extremely small “mishaps”, when Jeanne will completely succumb to her condition. And this is the kind of gradual disintegration of sanity that many films fail to portray credibly (Revolutionary Road (2008) comes to mind first). What happens obscures how it all happens. Cinema becomes text. Although Jeanne Dielman is much more extreme in its form than the mainstream narrative cinema would require, it clearly shows that why a formal stance doesn’t merely justify the medium chosen but enhances its possibilities.

Jeanne DielmanIt wouldn’t be unfair to call Jeanne Dielman an experimental film. Where other films that deal with similar theme of urban alienation tend to bend towards the cerebral side, Jeanne Dielman is more experiential. At any point in the film, once the viewer gathers everything there is to an image, like Tarr’s movies, fatigue sets in. We start experiencing time as it is, undiluted. In other words, we begin taking part in Jeanne’s life by experiencing the savage inertia of time. The only difference is that she is oblivious to it while we, possessing knowledge of the artificial and transitory nature of cinema, are not. Jeanne doesn’t pass through life. She lets life pass through her. Not once does she show signs of emotional fatigue. She is insensitive to her condition much more than her cerebral counterparts. Except for one sequence at a button store, where she shows clear indications of mental derailment, there apparently is no outlet for her emotions at all. Apart from the perfunctory conversations with her son and the occasional visit by the neighbour, who asks Jeanne to take care of her baby (who could well be considered a miniature Jeanne) from time to time, Jeanne is completely cut off (at times literally, in the frame) from the world.

In his extraordinary article on Tarr, Kovács writes about the director’s style:

In Tarr’s world, deconstruction is slow but unstoppable and finds its way everywhere. The question, therefore, is not how to stop or avoid this process, but what we do in the meantime? Tarr asks this question of the audience, but if the audience wants to understand the question, it first has to understand the fatality of time. And in order to grasp that, it has to understand that there is no excuse in surviving the present moment: time is empty—an infinite and undivided dimension, in which everything repeats itself the same way.

Akerman’s own style does not seem far from this. Through repetitions, in gratuitous amounts, Akerman creates a film of high precision and low life quotient. In fact, everything in the film seems to exhaust itself the moment it takes birth.  Akerman repeats every element of the film – time (Jeanne’s daily routine), space (the viewer is immediately acquainted with the couple of rooms that the almost the whole film takes place in), the actors’ movement and gestures (Jeanne act of switching off lights moves from interesting to an in-joke) and even camera angles (as if the actors are passing in front of stationery cameras installed at various locations in the house).

Jeanne DielmanThe only hope for Jeanne to snap out of this vicious loop comes in the form of the final sequence in the film where she stabs to death an unsuspecting client of hers (Actually, it is never made clear if the scene takes place in Jeanne’s present or not. The man could well be her husband, whose death is talked about regularly in the film, thus, also, creating a narrative loop within the film. But considering the realities of the world, it is unlikely). This is where Akerman deviates from Tarr. Tarr seals his characters in their own existence until they fade into oblivion. His characters neither have history or hope. Akerman, on the other hand, gives her characters a past and a future. The circle in Jeanne’s life may just be a stray deadlock that had to be resolved by her action (rather, by ceasing her inaction). There is certainly a gaze at a different future throughout the film. Jeanne is expecting a gift from her aunt, which is revealed to be a dress later.  She deposits money in the bank for future use. Her aunt even urges her to migrate to Canada. Even though, a large part of the movie is concerned with her empty life, it does offer a hope for renewal.

Obviously, Akerman is far from being a romantic. It is true that she does not choose to tread Tarr’s spiral, which seems to go in circles but ends only in decimation, and concocts an open ending, thus leaving margin for hope of escape. But why Akerman’s masterwork feels ultimately like an exercise in despair is that she generalizes Jeanne’s existence. As a matter of fact, we don’t even know if the lady we are watching is Jeanne or if the building is the one mentioned in the title. By not pinning down particulars, Akerman seems to speak for an entire generation and era. Of course, the whole film could be deconstructed to unveil political, social, sexual and cultural outlook of the age, but what makes Jeanne Dielman stand out from its contemporaries is not its keen study of lives in modern times, but its ability to make us experience what every Jeanne Dielman experiences and understand why we each of us, in a way, has become a Jeanne Dielman.

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