GHOST IN THE SHELL 2 (Mamoru Oshii, Japan, 4)
Probably not the best choice for me to see, as I’m neither much of a science-fiction hound nor an Anime fanboy. This film retells the BLADE RUNNER/ROBOCOP premise of humans being replaced by androids and the existing humans often being part-android, with a plot already familiar from this summer — slave robots rising up and killing their masters (wasn’t Will Smith available to do the voiceover?). GHOST IN THE SHELL has mostly evaporated from my head just three days later, but it had such eye-rollers as namedropping Descartes’ daughter in an effort to put some intellectual whipped cream on what is really only two scoops of 1980s cop-buddy movie (their boss even calls them on the carpet, the bachelor has a cuddly dog … dude-san, please). The sci-fi trope of “questioning reality,” as usual, did nothing for me. I can’t quite put my finger on why Japanese animation, even Miyazaki, has mostly left me lukewarm or cold — it would say it has something to with the flatness of the visual field, except that I love SOUTH PARK and BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD; it could be the overserious subject matter or perhaps the uninspiring, unmemorable voice characterizations (I didn’t care for SHREK, but Eddie Murphy was brilliant)
TROPICAL MALADY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 7)
TROPICAL MALADY bifurcates itself into two “halves.” The first hour or so is basically a hanging out “City Symphony” movie like MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA or PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (though eventually two central characters do emerge); the second segment, with an all new set of credits no less, adapts an allegoricized short story involving the same two central characters, a jungle hunt, subtitled monkey-chattering and a tiger looking directly into the camera. This is a loosely structured “arty” movie, obviously. But this is where a critical distinction must be made. This film hardly has more a plot than AFTER THE DAY BEFORE, in fact it has considerably less of one, and it sometimes doesn’t make much sense. For example, is the second half a recapitulation of the first, telling the same story in a different style, or is it a narrative continuation? Either is possible; in fact the first half ends with a feeling of jealousy that could signal a “break” in the natural world and the conceit of naturalism in favor of stylized allegory (think how PERSONA “breaks” upon the shard of glass for a sense of what I mean.) But in this case, I frankly don’t care, because TROPICAL MALADY never bored me. It was so nice to look at, had so many goofy interpolations and what WAKING LIFE calls “holy moments,” that it’d be churlish to complain. The conversation between the guy in the truck and the guy on the bus; the scenes of people cutting ice; hanging out with the two ladies who ran a store; the acted-out parable of the monk and the two farmers. There’s so much to enjoy on the fly (and the characters aren’t dour-faced depressives, which helps enormously) that the fact the film doesn’t seem to hang together doesn’t matter. In fact, I hereby formulate Victor’s Art House Rule #1: “If you make a slow movie where not much happens — thou shalt keep the overall tone light, airy and silly-comic, and maketh thy shots almost delectable.” Contrary to my usual custom, I could hardly describe my reactions when the lights went up and everyone started looking at each other, saying “well, what did you think of that.” The ending is the truly gripping conversation with the heart of a tiger and I let out a breath at the closing credits, sure that I had enjoyed what I had seen at some level, but unsure of myself. But TROPICAL MALADY has stewed wonderfully in the head and I already am eager for a second look and for a first look at the other films by “Joe” (MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON and BLISSFULLY YOURS) — and there’s just no arguing with those reactions.
AFTER THE DAY BEFORE (Attila Janisch, Hungary, 1)
After this film, my Welsh friend Daniel Owen said, close as I recall: “when people hear that I’m going to a film festival, they think it’s all shite like that.” It’s a simple story about a city traveler coming into a rural community to inherit a farm where there’s whispers about a missing girl. But it’s made mind-thumpingly boring and basically unintelligible because of (1) a blank-faced, hangdog, bored-looking actor in the lead role; (2) The Official High-Cinematic Style of lengthy takes, minimal dialogue, long shots, minimal plot; (3) the plot events being presented in a basically random order as though chronology and intelligibility are for wimps (FOLLOWING is a much better film with this same narrative non-“structure”); (4) the film also being a symbolic parable of alienation (the stranger from outside is barely understood and barely understands what the folk are saying; they don’t want him around; the protagonist is a symbolic artist; he can’t find the house he’s looking for; the characters don’t have names — all of that). The Festival Guidebook calls AFTER THE DAY BEFORE a “deeply unsettling film [that] is about looking without understanding … and searching without finding.” Hard to argue with any of that — I was deeply unsettled, looked without understanding and searched without finding, all right. Janisch has Bela Tarr’s cinematographer, so all the shots of reeds and tall grasses and hill and dale are pretty enough, I suppose. And I’m sure there’s also some Lacan gibberish in there about the mirror phase (the protagonist “sees himself” commit the “crime” he’s been “investigating”), but if an artist doesn’t care enough to make his work intelligible, it’s not my job to do so. So awful on every level was AFTER THE DAY BEFORE that I responded to Dan’s comment that I sure hoped this would be the worst film I would see this festival, because if it wasn’t, if there was a more-awful filmgoing experience in my future, God could only exist as a despicable sadist unworthy of worship and his Church could only be an instrument of evil that I’d have nothing to do with and … well … hmm … Lukas Moodysson, I really hate you.
LA FEMME DE GILLES (Frederic Fonteyne, France, 8)
The amazing thing about Emannuelle Devos’ performance in this film is that it might not even be her best of this festival. In this film, she plays a traditional 1930s wife in small-town France (and in ROIS ET REINE, she is just as good as a contemporary thrice-married social climber). LA FEMME DE GILES begins with a wordless but marvelously-shot, framed and edited sequence of moments from Gilles’ daily life, starting with him at work at a steel plant and culminating in bed with his wife, Elisa (a scene that was absorbing without being ostentatiously “hot”). But fairly soon, Elisa starts to suspect Gilles is cheating on her with her sister. As Elisa, Devos looks a bit like Sandra Bernhard, only without the harsh sneer chiseled into La Sandra’s face and with much better natural command of her face and body language. That wonderful face and the way she uses it gives Elisa a combination of intelligence and innocence — she can read the signs but can’t believe Her Gilles would do that to her — without a hint of Modern Woman. Devos plays opposite Clovis Cornillac, who has a broad-shouldered, round-faced mensch quality, ideal for playing a pre-psychological working-class male. Much of the film’s drama, like in last year’s brilliant THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS, comes from exchanges of glances, things unsaid and suspected, and a few voyeur’s peeks. Fonteyne also reveals a bit more of an eye than I recall him demonstrating in the also-excellent AN AFFAIR OF LOVE from 2000 (the cut to a movie theater, when Elisa becomes convinced Gilles is cheating, is marvelously dry and ironic). This film would have been a contender for best of the festival if it hadn’t been for the last 3 minutes (an “acte gratuit” coming at the end of a meticulously-observed character study — wrong in every conceivable way). And I could REALLY have done without the after-film Q-and-A and hearing Fonteyne’s lame (“it was in the novel”) and nonsensical (“she had come to realize she could be someone other than Gilles’ wife”) excuses for a blot on an otherwise excellent film.