Staying Vertical

With Staying Vertical, Alain Guiraudie sustains his standing as the maker of enigmatic, beguiling films. The mystery here doesn’t stem from concealed character motivations or narrative convolutions, but by the creation of a world where familiar social rules don’t apply. The film opens with shots from the dashboard of a car moving through the countryside. The driver is Leo (Damien Bonnard, a potentially-great comedian) and, given it’s a Guiraudie film, he’s likely cruising. He solicits a young man with an instantly-suspicious body language and is turned down. The boy is Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) and lives with old man Marcel (Christian Bouillette) whose waking time is accompanied by booming metal music. Though in rase campagne, neither of them is scandalised by Leo’s solicitation – a behavioural detail symptomatic of the universe Guiraudie constructs here.

Leo continues and arrives in the prairies in the south of France, where he hooks up with Marie (India Hair), a shepherdess living with her farmer father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) and two sons. Leo frequently escapes to the city: he’s a screenwriter short-changing his producer with a non-existent script. In an abrupt time-leap, we see Marie giving birth to Leo’s baby. Depressed and anxious about Leo’s regular absences, Marie departs for the city with her two sons, leaving Leo and her father with the newborn. Leo wanders with the baby, sometimes consulting a therapist living in the woods, always keeping an eye on Yoan and Marcel. Jean-Louis discovers him, takes him to Marie by force and, given Marie doesn’t want to return from the city, keeps Leo with him. Leo escapes the farm after Jean-Louis makes sexual advances and uses his baby as bait for wolf-hunting. At the end of another series of encounters with all these characters, Leo ends up with the lonely, suffering Marcel. He helps the old man alleviate his pain by screwing him to death. He’s arrested and his baby handed over to Marie by the child services.

Staying Vertical spans the entire breath of France, but we don’t really get a sense of the scale of geography the characters traverse—perhaps a product of the film’s piecewise funding. Guiraudie’s film is a series of a journeys into and out of the heartland of the country: young people like Leo, Marie and Yoan are able to get out and return at will to the backwoods, but old men like Jean-Louis and especially Marcel have to resign themselves to this life of isolation. So, in a way, Guiraudie is mapping out the tragedy of queer aging onto the landscape, the city offering more chances of at least passing connections than the endless prairies. Leo loses his car, becomes penniless and makes it on foot across the country dodging the police. The film contains several wide-angle shots of him walking across a seemingly infinite geography. This isn’t an existential image as in Ceylan’s films, but a metaphor for gay loneliness that Staying Vertical is about.

Guiraudie’s film develops what might be called a non-normative—or even homonormative—world. Characters recognize desire in each other’s eyes instantly, their changing sexual affinities being a surprise to no one within this world. Guiraudie cycles through various permutations of his five central characters, just as he cycles through the same spaces and same framing of these spaces, to create several fleeting family-like units. Leo’s desire to retain his baby parallels Marcel’s wish to hold Yoan and Jean-Louis’ to keep Leo with him. Within these two-member units, characters are bound to each other by traditional, heterosexual familial relations as well as by their own romantic coupling. The nature of relationships between people in this world oscillates constantly between sexual and platonic. Guiraudie refuses to make a distinction since, for these gay men of vastly different ages, the same relationships must fulfil multiple needs.

Staying Vertical does have elements of melodrama in that it follows the romantic quest, fulfilment and disillusionment of a sympathetic central character. When Leo returns to the same locations, he’s always worse-off than before: all his objects of interest vanish from his ambit, he and his baby are held hostages by Jean-Louis, he loses his car, goes broke, is attacked by a group of clochards, gets implicated in assisted suicide, loses his son to child services. Without his baby by his side, he sleeps in Jean-Louis’s barn maternally clutching a lamb. This appropriation of ingredients from the woman’s weepie for queer ends finds its summit in the symbolism of the prairie wolves. Threats to the sheep and general life in the region, the wolves reside in the outer margins of the grasslands and come to represent the external world in face of which Leo must stand tall and fearless. It’s a blunt symbol that’s somewhat softened by Guiraudie’s matter-of-fact treatment.

Wonderstruck

Is Todd Haynes an auteur? Sure, he exclusively makes period films that deal with the question of personal identity within a society in flux. But Haynes’ works are so different from each other in terms of subject matter and style that they seem to be a product of many subjectivities and no subjectivity at once. If there’s any doubt as to whether this is intentional, look no further than his masterpiece I’m Not There (a title that should be read as “there is no such thing as I”). Bob Dylan stopped singing protest songs as a protest against an establishment that was expecting protest songs from him, just as Haynes frustrated the expectation from him to keep up the melodramatic high of Far from Heaven. Todd Haynes is an auteur whose preoccupation is a denial of that label. He’s done the flip again with Wonderstruck, following up a heartbreaking film about the assertion of queer identity in a conservative milieu with an equally-felt straight up children’s picture on the value of traditions.

Adapted from Brian Selznick graphic novel of the same name, Wonderstruck weaves together two stories set fifty years apart. The first unfolds in New Jersey in 1927 and follows a deaf-mute girl Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who runs away from her authoritarian father to her mother, a famous silent film star (Julianne Moore) in Hollywood. The premise and the timeframe allow Haynes to realize this section like a silent film—soon to make way for the talkies—without necessarily imitating its aesthetics. He pays tribute to Gish, Chaplin, Griffith, Murnau, and Vidor, but also shoots in widescreen monochrome, with a modern camera choreography and a conventional-sounding musical score by Carter Burwell. Information is revealed visually through texts that Rose writes and shows to others, producing plot surprises that wouldn’t have been possible with sound.

The second story takes place in 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Having recently lost his mother, Ben (Oakes Fegley) also loses his hearing in a lightning strike. Ben is a curator of sorts, he collects various models in his house, one of which is an old illustrated book published by the American Museum of Natural History. He sets out to New York city in search of his father, the only trace of whom is a scrap of letter addressed to his mother tucked in the book. As expected, the two stories come together in the third act in a predictable but meaningful way. But Haynes intercuts them right from the beginning in a thematic manner that allows each story to take turns in anticipating each other. This editing pattern, perhaps a little too neat, underscores the living weight of history and helps each narrative thread furnish information missing in the other. There are also a handful of psychedelic montage sequences recalling Guy Maddin where the past is evoked in the present.

Haynes’ film is most of all a tribute to museums as institutionalized memory creating and outlasting personal memories. The plot revolves around two people who manage to find their roots in a particular room of the American Museum of Natural History. The film’s key moments involve the act of touching—a proscribed yet instinctive gesture for first-time museum visitors the film understands well. Rose and Ben connect to each other in their coming in physical contact with the meteorite at the museum. The shooting stars they see in the sky, themselves, are emissaries from the past. The two stories come together in a voiceover that is cut to a miniature NYC panorama at the Queens museum, a double metaphor of museums as living histories that provide narratives and whittle down time and place to human scale. Haynes’ film is a kind of museum too, depicting the changing face of New York over a long period. Like those institutions, it aims to connect people across ages through a shared geography.

Wonderstruck is untainted in its innocence. To be sure, there are several failed parental figures and Ben has all his money stolen in the city, but the children in the film aren’t subjected to any real loss of innocence. Rose and Ben leave for New York on pure faith—a faith that is returned by its residents and institutions. In doing so, I think Haynes divests himself of his camp, ironic sensibility and pays a more profound, close-grained tribute to the silent movies. Julianne Moore is incredible, but it’s the sublime Millicent Simmonds, deaf-mute in real life, who is the very face of the film. With her cropped hair and deep, sparkling eyes, she recalls the great waifs of silent cinema. I hope we see more of her. The wolves are symbols.

A glance at the lineups of the major film festivals reveals how strong a year 2013 was for cinema, though the most important films, as is usually the case, wouldn’t see the light of day until about a year or two later. Personally, even more than it did in 2012, cinema took a back seat for various reasons and I could see only a fraction of what I wanted to this year. (Favorite discoveries this year include Douglas Sirk, Harun Farocki, Ernst Lubitsch and Samuel Fuller.) This post lists my favorite films that premiered in 2013. Other films I really liked were Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra and Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope. Hope that 2014 will be a much better year on all fronts.

1. The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA)

 

The Wolf Of Wall StreetReligion is the opium of the people” wrote Karl Marx. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wall Street evangelist and stock market prophet, Jordan Belfort, might just agree, even though the kingdom of heaven he promises is very much of this world. Martin Scorsese’s loud, unhinged and debauched portrait of the rise, fall and resurrection of the loud, unhinged and debauched Belfort is the anti-Christ story of our age: a man who lets others suffer for his sake and for whom every object, experience and sensation in the world is worth commodifying. Scorsese’s presents late capitalism in all its rapaciousness and vulgarity, as a force which appropriates pretty much everything in its way, including criticism, to gain momentum, as a psychosexual space in which the id is given free rein and libido finds an outlet in the act of moneymaking and as a state of perpetual sensory stimulation where wealth accumulation for the sake of it becomes as addictive as sex and drugs. Rife with film references and genre games, The Wolf of Wall Street is as much a duet between Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and the topicality of Terence Winter’s adaptation as it is a soaring, endlessly fascinating example of commercial filmmaking that witnesses a veteran craftsman at the top of his game.

2. Stranger By The Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

 

Stranger By The LakeIrrationality is also at the heart of Alain Guiraudie’s simmering Stranger by the Lake, in which the object of fear is also the object of desire and where death and sex– la mort et la petite mort – are inseparably intertwined. Like Tsai Ming Liang’s quasi-phantom protagonists and their deserted habitats, the ghost-like characters in Guiraudie’s film haunt the lake by the day and vanish by night. And like Tsai’s cinema, Stranger employs a repetition of similar shots, spaces, movements and perspectives that both imparts it a structural simplicity and makes the gradual deviations from them even more pronounced. Marked by three distinct spaces – the woods, the beach and the parking lot – that trace the Freudian topology of the human psyche, the film presents a homo-normative world in which heterosexual presence is literally pushed to the margins, resulting in a level playing field divested of the problems of male gaze. More importantly, Stranger is perhaps the most visually accomplished film of the year and its handling of the interaction between Caucasian bodies and sunlight, foliage, twilight sky and water surface recalls the finest Impressionist works, especially those of Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir.

3. Stoker (Park Chan-wook, USA)

 

StokerAn extremely inspired piece of filmmaking, Park Chan-wook’s brilliant Stoker contains some of the most exciting cinematography, editing, sound and production design seen this year. Like Polanski’s movies, Park’s film is about the gradual induction and eventual decimation of Good by Evil. As in Stranger by the Lake, what is most seductive is also the most frightful. Fear and desire are enlaced together and embodied by the figure of Uncle Charlie, who is both an instrument of death and object of sexual desire. Stoker is evidently the result of synergy between a strongly authorial filmmaker who thinks primarily in terms of images and a rich, meaty script that draws as much from horror cinema and literature as it does from Hitchcock’s body of work. Park’s erotic, alluring economy of expression distinguishes itself from the self-congratulatory shorthand of ad filmmaking in the way it establishes subtler association between images and sounds in the film. Strikingly directed with strongly vertical compositional elements and an eerily accentuated sound palette, Stoker is a glorious return to form for Park, who is among the most remarkable visual stylists working today.

4. Shield Of Straw (Takashi Miike, Japan)

 

Shield Of StrawTakashi Miike’s juggernaut of a film, the proto-dystopian Shield of Straw, works off a premise familiar to Western movie audience: a group of cops have to transfer a pedophilic killer from the city of Fukuoka to the police headquarters in Tokyo. But there’s a problem. A multi-billionaire has announced a bounty on the guy so massive that it overshadows any fear of imprisonment. What’s more, the killer is such a despicable figure that any residual moral compunction about knocking him off is eliminated. The cops, as a result, have to protect him from not only the entire Japanese population but also themselves. A distant cousin to Scorsese’s film, Shield of Straw imagines a society where both moral and legal obstacles – the superegoist constructs of sin and crime – to Darwinian social-climbing are eliminated or, worse, justified. More impressive than the demonstration of how such an economic system becomes a perfect incubating ground for greed is its central existential dilemma, in which the obligation is on the individual not only to do the right thing, but to understand what the right thing is.

5. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia)

 

The Missing PictureHow do you represent history on film that was never documented visually? This is the question that to which Rithy Panh’s highly original, challenging and affecting work responds. Seeking primarily to be a document of life in the Khmer Rouge concentration camps, the film uses neither fictional recreation, which might end up graphic and exploitative, nor animation, which lacks the material presence that photographs offer, but hundreds of meticulously hand-made clay dolls that stand in for people who are to be represented, the concept being that clay would symbolically contain the remains of the camp victims. The resulting film places the audience at a distance from the horrors being described while always retaining a space for empathy. A densely detailed voiceover , on the other hand, recounts Panh’s personal experience at the camps, his lament about images that should or should not have been made, the way cinema had become a tool for totalitarian oppression and reflections on the wacky “Marx meets Rousseau” ideology of the Khmer Rouge that justified the camps. The outcome is a thoroughly thought-provoking essay film that has both the simplicity of a historical document and the ambitiousness of a deconstruction project.

6. In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili/Simon Groß, Georgia)

 

In BloomOne of the regrettable things about Nana Ekvtimishvili’s and Simon Gross’ absolutely heartbreaking debut In Bloom is that it is being promoted and received merely as a coming-of-age film set against Soviet collapse. Though the film is certainly that, it is grossly unfair to pigeonhole a wrenching portrayal of female camaraderie on par with anything that Pedro Almodóvar has made into a convenient marketing category. Two 14-year old ‘women’ Eka and Natia, superbly played by debutants Lika Babulani and Mariam Bokeria, in the process of transitioning to adulthood, negotiate the social and cultural problems that plague a country in transition and quietly break patriarchal norms. Dysfunctional families, street violence and the war with Abkhazia are all definitely forces that shape the young women’s lives, but they reside on the periphery of the narrative, which, like the finest Italian Neorealist films, does not underestimate the power of individual agency while acknowledging social constructivism. There is as much truth in Natia acceding to be married to a guy she does not like as there is in Eka tossing the Chekhovian pistol into a lake.

7. Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, France)

 

Mood IndigoTrust a wild music video director like Michel Gondry to come up with the zaniest, trippiest, most imaginative film of the year. Adapted from Boris Vian’s (apparently unfilmable) book L’écume des jours, Mood Indigo is escapist cinema in the truest sense of the term and presents a universe free from the laws of physics and logic. So you have the Pianocktail which concocts a drink based on the notes you play, a rubbery dance form where legs wobble and sway with the woozy jazz soundtrack, split-screen weather conditions, a doorbell that needs to be squashed every time it is set off, a star philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre discoursing from inside a gigantic pipe and a floor full of stenographers writing in chorus the film they are in. Mood Indigo’s gently satirical tale of downward mobility embodies the spirit of the best musicals, producing a strange, unwieldy yet alluring film that combines levity of form with the somberness of its story. Rivaling Terry Gilliam at his surreal best, Gondry’s ceaselessly inventive film is something of a descendant to Georges Méliès’ and Émile Cohl’s cinema of dreams.

8. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (Ben Rivers/Ben Russell, Estonia)

 

A Spell To Ward Off The DarknessBen Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s hypnotic tripartite work presents a single nameless character, played by musician Robert A A Lowe, living in three different social setups: as a part of a commune in Estonia, as a loner in the Finnish woods and as a member of a Norwegian Black Metal group. Specifically, the film shows the character in three states of being, in which the identity of the individual is subordinated to larger ones – the New Ageist assimilation of individual into the community, the Tarkovskian oneness with nature and the Black Metallic transcendence into the realm of the occult. These, on a more general level, are also the three avenues through which men create meaning in their lives – purposeful communal living, Thoreau-esque simple life in harmony with nature and creation of art. Although Spell’s significance arises from the interaction between its three parts, the individual segments themselves contain enthralling passages, especially the trancelike last section, made almost entirely out of the close-ups of performers’ faces and the discordant soundscape, transports the viewer to an experiential plane far removed from his mundane corporeality. It reinforces what André Bazin said of cinema: the Real can be arrived at only through artifice.

9. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

 

Like Father, Like SonA decidedly worn-out premise is at the origin of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son: two babies are swapped at the hospital at the time of birth and end up in different social strata. What could have been an exercise in broad comedy or, even worse, class stereotyping – though the film is a comedy and does double as a fine comedy of class-bound manners – is instead transformed into a piercing examination of parenthood, in which bringing up a child becomes a process of coming to terms with one’s own flaws and insecurities. Through turn of events the film undermines the perspective that men look at their offspring as a continuation of bloodline and women view them as the recipients of their care and affection, While, on the surface, the film seems to be merely a cautionary tale about the perils of spending too little time with your kid, on careful unraveling, it reveals itself as a much more delicate look at the tradeoffs one has to make in bringing up a child, at the question of where to interfere and where to let go.

10. Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, USA)

 

Drinking BuddiesWith Drinking Buddies, the insanely prolific Joe Swanberg, who wrote and directed a modest three films in 2013 and acted in five, has made a work that might well situate him in the line of filmmakers like Eric Rohmer, Richard Linklater and Hong Sang-soo in both its structural simplicity – marked by numerous small symmetries – and its fine observations on human relationships. The terrific ensemble is as much an author as Swanberg is and the actors evidently draw from personal experience. A naturalistic depiction of the lives of two friends at a brewery, the film treads the ever fuzzy boundary between friendship and romance. Like in the equally excellent Mexican comedy Club Sandwich (2013), Swanberg and his actors host a playful game of smudging the boundaries of sexual propriety by employing ambiguous actor positions, dialogue and physical interaction that fudges the accepted movie conventions about on-screen friendship and romance. If not anything else, Drinking Buddies is an embodiment of the shortcomings and apprehensions of the ‘millennial’ generation, for which the line between friendship and romance has become porous and tricky to negotiate.

 

Special mention: Young And Beautiful (François Ozon, France)