The Distorting Mirror: Adrian Martin’s MIFF Highlights

Sifting for gems at the Melbourne International Film Festival 68.5, this critic finds European treats 'Ema', 'Paris Calligrammes', and the resurrection of a Raúl Ruiz horror-fantasy, and some Australian films too.

68 and a half, eh? With this cute touch, the latest Melbourne International Film Festival declares itself as an online event for the strange, twilight world that is 2020, the ‘age of COVID-19’ (as it is so depressingly referred to everywhere). As happened with the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, it is an uneven selection. That is, essentially, a reflection of the global situation in cinema: most of the films that cinephiles have been waiting for since the start of the year are still being held back for hopefully better days, while festivals try to keep going in a holding pattern. So this half-MIFF seems crammed with feature titles that are either standard-issue arthouse dramas (such as Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi, about an ex-convict passing himself off as a priest), or mainstream films with a mildly stylish overlay (like Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy, an overly mannered re-imagining of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan). 

…this situation of scarcity creates the opportunity for digital spectators to see more of what they may normally choose to avoid 

On the upside, this situation of scarcity creates the opportunity for digital spectators to see more of what they may normally choose to avoid – such as shorts, documentaries and experimental work – and places a welcome emphasis on special events, such as the one-chance presentation of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s only film, Last and First Men, with its sumptuous score performed live by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. That bonus element is, in this case, a blessing, as the movie itself – an adaptation of Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 novel of the same name, narrated by Tilda Swinton and featuring mainly statues and architecture in the image-track – is (I’m sorry to report) a pompous, tedious bore, a laboured homage to Chris Marker’s far superior La Jetée (1962) stretched way beyond the point of endurance.

But there are, nonetheless, some real gems to be experienced in MIFF 68½.

Read: MIFF brings a pile of filmmaker inspirations into your lounge

International

Ema

Chile scores big in this year’s MIFF program. Closing night film Pablo Larraín’s Ema is a film I was dreading, as I had read nothing but negative accounts of it. It turns out to be one of the year’s best. Departing from both Larraín’s earlier, political work such as No (2012) and his impressive American biopic Jackie (2016), Ema has been touted as a ‘marriage of film and dance’ in the mode of Wim Wenders’ Pina (2011) – and, indeed, its early scenes showcase this aspect, outlining the tense production of a new piece by the demanding troupe-leader, Gastón (Gael García Bernal, brilliantly playing here against his own star image).

As it happens, the dance (and its accompanying music) is of a particular, modern, streetwise style: reggaeton. Larraín captures it vibrantly enough, but the film truly takes off once it transforms reggaeton into the dramatic stake that divides or unites its characters. The core of the story is Ema (the sensational Mariana Di Girolamo), on her way to ditching husband Gastón, but also pining for the young boy Polo (Cristián Suárez) whom they once adopted but later returned to an orphanage. Ema is the apotheosis of the ‘unruly heroine’ that some people are calling for today: driven, visionary, occasionally vicious, conflicted – basically, all over the shop. Let’s just say that when she gets a flamethrower in her hands, it’s an indelible spectacle.

So the dance-showcase becomes a narrative. What I did not expect at all is that the narrative slowly reveals itself as an especially perverse kind of ‘intimacy thriller’ – not with action sequences but spellbinding psychological and erotic power games (you’ll have to discover the substance of these for yourself). The pleasures of Ema are many, from the inspired use of the architecture of Valparaíso to the splendid scene in which Gastón bitterly demonstrates how reggaeton is, to him, like a ‘mechanical prison’ – to which his fierce interlocutors protest that it is, in fact, ‘the orgasm you can dance’.

The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror

The great, Chilean-born Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011), who spent much of his career based in France, is enjoying a busy after-life. In league with the Chilean production company Poetastros, Ruiz’s widow Valeria Sarmiento (herself a gifted filmmaker and editor) has devoted part of her energy, in recent years, to completing his unfinished works. The Wandering Soap Opera (2017), a delightful assemblage of scenes that Ruiz shot with students in 1990, came first. Now, The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror presents a more unusual case. The Tango of the Widower was a horror-fantasy, black comedy script that Ruiz shot in 1967 in the context of a Chilean ‘film club’ – he described it as ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as re-seen by Luis Buñuel’ – designed to run for about an hour. The project had to be abandoned – Ruiz made his public, feature-length breakthrough a year later with Three Sad Tigers, but he long dreamed of somehow resurrecting this surreal tango.

I tell the truth: this film immediately entered my sleeping nightmares.

And resurrection is exactly what Sarmiento has given it – in the form of a ‘revivification’ that is itself very ghostly and unsettling (I tell the truth: this film immediately entered my sleeping nightmares). Perhaps inspired by the mindboggling ‘palindrome’ exercise that Ruiz used to set his students – ‘create a scene that makes sense when played both forwards and backwards’ – Sarmiento has more-or-less reconstructed the original film (with the help of expert lip-readers, since the soundtrack was lost), before flipping it (with various abridgements and soundtrack interventions) into reverse motion. The second half of the movie, therefore, is the ‘distorting mirror’ of the first. So this film by a dead man shows another dead man spluttering back into life in order to return to his initial point of looking upon the dead body of his wife whom he has probably killed … let the nightmares (re)begin! But it is also (as always with Ruiz) very funny.

First Cow

In a time when so many films – especially of the American independent variety – seem to exhaust themselves with so much arbitrary, hectic movement (Safdie brothers, I’m looking at you), Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Raymond, is quietly impressive from its very first shots: still, sure, evocative, precisely framed. A lost art refound! The story begins, beguilingly, with a present day scene to which it (hauntingly) never returns: a woman and her dog stumble upon a pair of skeletons buried, without tombstone or token, in the ground. What’s the story, the history, that put them there? Who are they?

Then, leaping back in time, the film becomes a low-key Western – lower-key than even, say, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), but with many of the same thematic concerns. It’s an ‘origins of capitalism’ tale – Westerns frequently are, in one way or another – but at an especially precarious, primal stage: different interest groups, settler or indigenous, are trying to figure what natural resources they need, and how best to get their hands on them. It’s in such a context that the ‘first cow’ to reach this part of the land becomes a crucial stake in competing schemes.

First Cow is among the year’s must-see movies.

That may sound like the stuff of a rather didactic, Marxist Western, but Reichardt filters it through the very gentle story of two soulful men who decide to bond and help each other out: King-lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie (John Magaro). Talk, although it matters in its hardboiled, minimalist restraint, is not the most important thing that passes between these guys: as always in her cinema (previous highlights include Wendy and Lucy, 2008, and Certain Women, 2016), Reichardt weaves a special aura of authenticity from the minute, physical rituals of working, making and tending. In the fact, the film falters only at the point when the two men are forcefully separated, and the plot takes on the false allure of a hunt-suspense action movie – the type of generic thrill that Reichardt seems scarcely intent on achieving. First Cow, though, is among the year’s must-see movies.

Paris Calligrammes

Ulrike Ottinger is far less known in Australia than other figureheads of the New German Cinema that emerged at the end of the 1960s, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Margarethe von Trotta. No doubt this was because, for a long time, Ottinger occupied the movement’s proudly experimental wing, alongside difficult-to-assimilate luminaries like Werner Schroeter. Her major films, including Ticket of No Return (1979), are extraordinary mixes of Pop Art visuals, theatrical tableaux, queer feminism and baroque, aesthetic excess on every level of cinematic style. But Ottinger, now 78, has also pursued a line of ethnographic or anthropological filmmaking, rendered in her very personal style. We discover the origin of almost all these elements in her captivating, autobiographical essay Paris Calligrammes.

Anyone who is even half a Francophile will swoon at Paris Calligrammes

Ottinger arrived in Paris in 1962, at the age of 20, and left in 1969. A certain aura of French culture had already infused her childhood, growing up in the French-occupied town of Konstanz in post-war Germany – she saw so many French films that she was shocked to discover, one day, that there were also movies in which people spoke German! As a young adult and budding artist, Ottinger embraced much that was new and radical in the Parisian scene. Yet – and this is a crucial keynote in her testament – she also kept close ties with members of an older crowd, many of them émigrés or visitors who frequented a special bookshop named (after a poetry book by Apollinaire) Calligrammes. This gave her a unique, historically informed perspective on the passing fads and fashions in all fields, including that of politics.

As a 130-minute documentary, this is fairly straightforward stuff – archival footage, voice-over narration, some musical interludes. We revisit the cinemas, museums and (in an eloquent highlight) the auction houses that Ottinger frequented in her youth. But the clips from movies (including Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945) are frequently used in an imaginative, inventive way, and the rare glimpses of celebrities including polymath Jean Cocteau, cinema historian Lotte Eisner, filmmaker Jean Rouch and photographer Ré Soupault – and/or the traces they left behind – are the priceless bounty of what must have been an extraordinary effort of research by Ottinger and her team.

Read: Film Review: Bloodshot Heart is Giallo all the way

Anyone who is even half a Francophile will swoon at Paris Calligrammes. But there is also a stern, cautionary note, especially in the closing stages: don’t expect the usual, romantic paean to good old ‘May 68’ here – an uprising that was not kind to the cultural elders (such as actor Jean-Louis Barrault from Les Enfants du Paradis) revered by Ottinger – and don’t skip out before a final, on-screen title deftly puts the nostalgia of hearing Piaf’s anthem ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ into a proper, historic perspective. Ouch!

Australian

I was able to preview three Australian features – two documentary, one fiction. I would have watched more, if Australian producers (in general) were more willing to allow this type of prior access to the press and media. The entirety of MIFF this year, after all, exists online, so how hard can that be? It is a very different matter in some of the European and Asian festivals, I assure you – where critics of all stripes get more access and seem to be more valued.

Paper Champions

At least for Australian viewers, there is sometimes a slight, daggy charm to be found in low-budget comedy films set in rural or small town areas – You Can’t Stop the Murders (2003) was one example. Jo-Anne Brechin’s Paper Champions, set and shot in Geelong, is the latest brave effort in this local tradition. Main actor Luke Saliba is also the co-writer with James Pratt and Michael F.J. McCallum; he plays Rey, an inhibited, introverted fellow who lacks the mana (self-confidence) that his best pal, Wade (John Tui), keeps urging him to embrace. Much of the humour comes from the repetitive nature of a boring, everyday cycle, as in so many Australian comedies about office life: wake up, eat the same lunch, interact with the same people … that is, until various whimsical events shake Rey out of his habits, and he pursues both a nurse, Holly (Tessa de Josselin), and – more oddly – a moment of glory in the wrestling ring.

Australian screen comedies frequently invite a kind of cultural carbon-dating. This one cracks jokes about Rocky (in a sports training montage), Kubrick’s 2001 (‘Open the pod bay doors, HAL’) and Saturday Night Fever (the inevitably tawdry dancing-under-the-disco-ball spectacle). Up-to-the-minute material, wouldn’t you say? On the other hand, there are lame references to ‘diversity and inclusion surveys’ in the 21st century workspace. Gary Sweet injects a welcome bit of manic, guest-star energy as Terry, new partner of Rey’s mother (Kaarin Fairfax) – they form a (sort of) hippie couple living right next to our frightened hero. I’m not sure I’d call it a ‘festival film’ exactly, but Paper Champions cruises along on its moderate good-vibes.

The Meddler (El Metido)

The Meddler (or El Metido) is a cinéma-vérité portrait of German Cabrera, a man on a mission in Guatemala. His relentless, nightly goal is to photograph criminals, either just mooching about or caught in the act of illegal deeds, and thereby to expose them. The government is doing nothing and the cops are not fast enough on the scene, so this Meddler charges into chaotic, dangerous situations with his trusty digital camera. Although he becomes a minor celebrity with a TV current affairs segment, he swears that he does this work neither for money nor fame.

At the start of this vivid condensation of several years in the subject’s life, Cabrera comes across almost as a Travis Bickle/Taxi Driver type: obsessive, strangely moralistic (especially when he leans out of his car and yells at random kids: ‘Have you been drinking? What are you smoking?’). I kept waiting for the switcheroo, some ugly revelation about his private life. But drama emerges from elsewhere: German alienates his first wife, and eventually starts a new family with another partner – all the while teaching his sons to avoid the violence and drugs of the street, to get jobs and lead normal, stable lives. He even, finally, gets to sleuth in tandem with the cops.

Any fan of true-crime media will want to see how The Meddler pans out.

The Meddler, co-directed by Daniel Leclair (who sits next to German in his fortified van and converses with him in Spanish) and Alex Roberts, is full of sensational TV-style techniques: dramatic music, sharp editing, drone-camera views of the city. Like many documentaries of this sort, it seems desperate to find and trace a conventional narrative arc: the hook here involves the father from whom German is long estranged, perhaps wrongfully arrested (the case is murky) and definitely abused in a Nicaraguan prison. German, to his frustration and despair, cannot really manage to intervene in the unfolding case, but monitors it nervously from home base.

As in a typical Hollywood movie, German hits a low-point about three-quarters of the way through the montage – an underworld threat reaches his home – and he has to rethink his crusading life. But does he? Any fan of true-crime media will want to see how The Meddler pans out.

The Leadership

As someone who once briefly had a well-paid moonlighting job speaking to after-dinner groups at leadership seminars – where, as a rule, I liked to screen violent clips from gangster movies – I was naturally drawn to comparing my own style of delivery with that of Fabian Dattner (who likes to bill herself as ‘CEO and Dreamer’) in Ili Baré’s The Leadership. This  documentary, which premiered at Sydney Film Festival, follows the 21 days of a ship voyage to Antarctica, where a large group of female scientists are encouraged to … well, ‘find themselves’, under the guidance of Dattner and her ‘faculty’, with the goal of pursuing, winning and maintaining leadership positions in their diverse STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) fields. The cause is a noble one – but Dattner’s strenuous methods, based on both breaking down and building up the individual ego of every participant, seem more than a little misplaced.

At the outset – with its stirring, soaring music (by Kristin Rule) and still more drone photography (directed by Dale Cochrane) for vista-effects – The Leadership comes on like a relentlessly positive, New Age advertisement (or recruitment campaign) for Dattner’s Homeward Bound enterprise. I will confess that my eyeballs were in constant roll-motion throughout its first half. But stick with it, because action at last starts happening, and things start cracking apart: several attendees confront Dattner with their doubts and questions (like: how inclusive is this all-white gathering?), and (as we learn) a subsequent investigation by Grist magazine uncovered disturbing allegations of incidents of sexual harassment and abuse involving male members of the ship’s crew (Baré’s camera crew, it must be said, either looked away from, or was prohibited from filming, the nightly, on-board socialising that led to these events).

It’s not half as morbidly satisfying as seeing Frederick Wiseman’s camera roll on implacably as the secluded monks psychologically go to pieces in Essene (1972), but it grips all the same. And after all that, in its world-wide coda, The Leadership tries to salvage a positive message. See if you agree with it.

© Adrian Martin, August 2020

The Melbourne International Film Festival 68.5 is streaming Australia-wide 6 – 23 August. Tickets and details here.

 
Adrian Martin
About the Author
Adrian Martin is a freelance film critic. Born in Australia, he created a unique role as an academic and public intellectual and is a key international figure in his field. His latest book is Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) and his website is www.filmcritic.com.au.