Ten of the Year 2016: Baden Baden

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Baden Baden (2016)

Dir: Rachel Lang

Starr: Salomé Richard (Ana), Claude Gensac (La grand-mère), Lazare Gousseau, (Grégoire), Swann Arlaud (Simon)

Belgium / France, 96mins

Mubi have already received plaudits from me in this Ten of the Year rundown regarding their promotion of the excellent Irish pseudo-documentary Further Beyond (2016). Another production that they championed was Rachel Lang’s feature debut, the brilliantly observed comic drama Baden Baden. Not only did the film streaming service give us this accomplished work, but they also gave us the background shading and texture of two earlier short films that featured the same central protagonist Ana, played with such guileless and self-possessed charm by the mildly androgynous Salomé Richard.

Back in 2010 Pour toi je ferai bataille depicted the young Alsacian Ana opting to join the military to give her life some purpose and meaning. This was a film obsessed with procedure, order and hierarchy, as well as issues of gender within a closed community such as the military. It featured a scene of exceptional comic and dramatic quality (the communal shower scene toward the film’s end), that proved an early indicator of Lang’s core strength as a filmmaker, namely her ability to seamlessly wed together humour and dramatic tension, often to poignant and affecting ends. One year after this film debut Lang returned to her heroine in the fantastically monikered Les navets blanc empêchent de dormer (2011). This film began with Ana now out of the army and tentatively pursuing a career as a sculptor under the tutelage of her uncle (played by Patrick Lang, the director’s father). Ana is also in a rather toxic relationship with an egocentric young artist called Boris (Julien Sigalas). It is the unravelling of that relationship that sees her having to take stock of her life decisions once again, setting us up for her initial circumstances in Baden Baden.

 

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Framing is everything in Lang’s work and it is precisely what is captured within the frame that finds itself desperately trying to avoid being the butt of a joke. Ana and driving do not get along.

 

At the start of the feature Ana is captured in a tightly-framed, shoulder-height tracking shot as she drives a film star to a Belgian film set. They are running late and on arrival at the set Ana is chewed out by the production manager. At the end of the film shoot Ana is supposed to drop the hire car back at the dealership, but instead she decides to drive back to her grandmother’s flat in Strasbourg. From just this opening ten minutes we are now keenly aware of the restless nature of Ana’s mid-twenties. It is apparent that she has put her sculptural pursuits on hold and has tested out film production work. Boris (now played by Olivier Chantreau) is still a presence within her life, simply through proximity, but there is a sense that she has tried to move beyond him. Having chosen not to take on motherhood, and being no longer part of the military, Ana’s brief homecoming turns into a summer-long re-evaluation of her existence. She is given some common-sense guidance by her ailing grandmother (played by de Funès veteran Claude Gensac), and strikes up a curious working relationship with a hitherto peripheral presence in the trilogy Grégoire (a perfectly dead-pan comic foil in Lazare Gousseau). The work that she takes on during the summer is the remodelling of her grandmother’s shower unit while the old woman is in hospital with a hip injury. This remodelling, however, is as much to do with Ana working upon her own sense of aimless drift than it is to do with any real benefit for her grandmother.

Lang is, even if in microcosm, following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Truffaut and Richard Linklater, by choosing to return to the same character, played by the same actor, over a considerable length of real time. Baden Baden works as a standalone feature, but it is greatly enhanced by being viewed within the wider chronological context of the trilogy. Each of the films demonstrates how the often infuriatingly passive Ana decisively comes to the plate when forced to reconsider her life’s course. Lang repeatedly throws us in to Ana’s life at a moment of running away. She runs away from Strasbourg and its suffocating insularity in 2010, only to immerse herself within an even more insular sense of community. By 2011 she has run away from this community to return to Strasbourg and the creative circles that she had struggled to integrate herself into before. Despite the repetitive narrative openings, Ana is not simply going around in circles, but is in fact evolving. Her time within the military has given her valuable life experience that we see informing her work as a sculptor, as well as her self-confidence as a strong-willed woman among badly behaved and boyish men (I am thinking of the train scene from Les navets… ). It is Ana’s gradual awareness of her evolution that marks Lang’s work out as a particularly observant character study.

 

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What looks like an excruciating comedy of discomfort in the Ricky Gervais vein, actually is something far funnier for avoiding that self-aware dislocation.

 

Having branched out from Strasbourg at the beginning of Baden Baden, the summer of retrenching that ensues is one in which Ana finally extirpates the bedevilling Boris from her life. In so doing she also exercises some of his romantic cruelty in the cold way in which she extinguishes Grégoire’s flickering flame. Strasbourg’s insular nature plays out as a series of returns to past experiences, as if Ana is measuring her present self in relation what little regard she now gives to difficult aspects of her past. It has been a long time since I have seen a hometown laid so forensically bare within a film; a thought made all the more remarkable when considering the generally static nature of Lang’s framing throughout the film. Interior and exterior alike are treated in the exact same manner, both being brightly lit by DOP Fiona Braillon, who accentuates garish colours, such as turquoise, and luminous yellows and pinks. Strasbourg is itself an unusual ‘nowhere’ space in cinematic terms, rarely used as a location within film. As a result there is a fresh revelatory quality to Lang’s filming of the city, that shies away from the obviously touristic, and instead thrusts us into those spaces that resonate most with Ana. These are locations of her own history and development, all the events that precede the first short film of the trilogy. Lang also makes much of the European nexus point that Strasbourg represents, being part of a peripheral area of France (Alsace), that has been historically contested. The city is close to multiple borders: Belgian, German, Luxembourg and Swiss. Lang’s feature moves fluidly between these spaces, starting in Belgium and briefly sojourning in Germany, where things are more efficiently constructed, as one sly joke in the film goes.

The most comical moments of the film revolve around this use of fixed framing, to create a sense of what lies outside of the frame bearing down upon the events taking place within the frame. Lang and her editor, Sophie Vercrussye, are genuinely innovative in the way that they piece together sequenced vignettes over larger durations of screen time. At times, it is as if the film is in fact an intricately layered symphony of comic sketches, in which the punchline or visual gag is deferred till such a point as it seems to belong to another routine altogether. Lang is fortunate to have discovered a lead actress with such consummate comic timing, and the relationships that Ana has with both her grandmother and Grégoire are fundamental to the way in which the film undercuts perfect miniatures of dramatic tension with a sharp verbal or visual gag (Ana’s mother visiting grandma’s flat, Grégoire and Ana cluelessly working on the shower, or Ana’s encroachment upon the character of Amar as he works upon a building site). Ultimately, it is the control of these comic aspects of the film that give a greater honesty to Ana’s various filial and social relationships. What is, perhaps, most impressive with Lang’s feature is that it manages to capture an ineffable moment of finding oneself, by finding a concrete image of expansiveness on to which Ana can project an intimate sense of belonging. The closing image of Ana and Amar beholding Le Corbusier’s uniquely fluid architectural design of the Notre Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp gives visual expression to the growing sense of fluidity and ease that Ana is discovering within herself, and particularly in relation to her perception of relationships. It is the perfect punctuation point for a feature film, and film trilogy, that Lang has gone on record as stating she will not return to. Having just been introduced to Ana, I, for one, am sorry that this is the end… but what an end.

 

 

Ten of the Year 2016: Paterson

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Paterson (2016)

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Starr: Adam Driver (Paterson), Golshifteh Farahani (Laura), Nellie (Marvin), Barry Shabaka Henley (Doc), William Jackson Harper (Everett), Chasten Harmon (Marie)

US / France / Germany, 118mins

NOTE: This review goes into great detail about the film’s construction which unavoidably discusses key plot points. I wold strongly advise going to see the film first. And make sure you stay till the very end to observe the memorial to a performance almost the equal of Driver’s.

Paterson is a film about an unassuming bus driver and poet called Paterson living a satisfying routine in the town of Paterson, NJ. It was an oasis of calm in a year of cultural, political and social turbulence. In its adherence to tight close-ups, askew camera positioning and a world seen in reflection, it hints at the limitless potential for poetic resonance in all things, if only we are willing to look upon them contemplatively. One of the film’s key scenes takes place in a launderette in the neighbourhood in which Paterson lives and walks his dog. The rapper and actor Method Man is testing out some lyrics that reference Ohio poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906), who wrote a great deal of his material in a dialect associated with African-Americans of the Southern States. As Paterson eavesdrops from the other end of his dog, Marvin’s, leash, Method Man reworks his poetic flow, reminding himself as he does so that there are ‘no ideas but in things’. This is an oft-quoted line from one of Paterson’s more famous former residents, the poet and physician, William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963). By this point in the film we know that Paterson is a fan of Williams’ work, and that Jarmusch’s film itself is patterned around some of the key principles of Williams’ poetic output. Location, lead actor (Adam Driver), poetic allusions and an embrace of equanimity combine to make this the film in which Jarmusch finally seems to perfect an aesthetic he has been working toward since Stranger than Paradise (1984), one which I would describe as a ‘Zen absurdism’.

 

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That’s an English Bulldog, it’s worth money, yo.

 

As a filmmaker Jarmusch has committed himself to small, forgotten, outsider spaces, more often than not American, which are inhabited by characters, predominately male, who are drifters, outcasts, or people who don’t really seem to belong in the time and/or the space they inhabit. A brief survey of works like Down by Law (1986), Broken Flowers (2005), or the aforementioned Stranger than Paradise, show mobile shots of some duration that give a whistle-stop tour of a neighbourhood and its peculiarly insular character. With Paterson the director has literally found the perfect vehicle for these potted travelogues of ‘nowhere’ places, in the form of the bus that Paterson drives around town. The small New Jersey city of Paterson becomes, with its two-storey downtown and its preponderance of inactive industrial landmarks, a crucible within which the mundane is converted into the mythic. It is the curious interconnection of a disproportionate number of poetic stories within the history of the city, that encourages Jarmusch and his DOP Frederick Elmes to visually depict the city’s geography as a nexus of poetic resonances emanating from within the quotidian nature of the place, and apprehended by the observant bus driver. This makes for a highly affected and slender form of narrative, but one that follows a carefully mapped out route towards a profound sense of closure and renewal.

The film describes a week in the life of Paterson and his wife Laura, from one Monday morning to the next. Just as Paterson’s life finds a watchful serenity in the rhythm of routine, Laura’s life is defined by a peculiarly specific sensibility that penetrates into the many, seemingly spontaneous, pursuits she undertakes (from interior design to country music). Although never fully condescending, the manner with which Jarmusch hems Laura in to a domestic space, very much on the periphery of Paterson’s ‘working’ day is one area of weakness within the film. Laura has creative agency, but her narrative purpose is very much geared toward helping establish a sense of secure routine for the eponymous protagonist. Each day of the week has improvisations and variations, but there is a formal structure underpinning them, that of Paterson’s unswerving daily routine (wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, write some poetry, drive the bus, clock off, go home, spend time with Laura, walk Marvin, go to the bar called Shades). Pushing the musical analogy further, a maestro can make great music from just two notes played well.  The formal minimalism of Jarmusch’s narrative is exemplary of such an approach, drawing out a great deal of meaning from what seems to be frequently superficial and trite. I believe this is because what Jarmusch’s film is entirely devoted to is the restitution of a harmonious order; that of the protagonist’s calm, and fully accepting, contemplation of the ideas held within the minutiae, the smallest of things.

Similar to Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), Paterson has the feel of a small film that contains the entire world – another reason why the role of Laura, and later of Marie, prove problematic. They are the only two women in the film that Elmes’ camera revisits, even then we get little sense of who they are, beyond a potential source of poetry for Paterson. That said, on a reviewing of the film, I found myself dwelling more upon the little acknowledgements between lovers – the way Paterson pulls the covers back over Laura’s body after he gets out of bed, the manner in which he always finds a small compliment to pay her, the little detailings in Paterson’s lunchbox that greet his moments of composition at Passaic Falls. Laura’s love of black and white is also a neat underscoring of the notion of doing so much with so little. Her every creative endeavour shown in the film involves finding new variations of black and white design, something that Paterson finds quietly enthralling when he notes that every circle within her design for the drapes is different (a remark entirely absent of irony, which is thanks to Driver’s remarkable sincerity in performance). Paterson cannot remember the last time he saw a film in black and white, after him and Laura treat themselves to a night at the movies. Yet for Laura the experience is something she loves and makes her think of how this feels like living in the 20th century. Shades and nuance belong to Paterson’s quiet being, whereas boldness and reinvention are part of Laura’s more immediately engaging presence.

 

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Reflections inform the parallel realities that Jarmusch’s film seeks to fully integrate, namely the quotidian and the poetic.

 

When mapping out how the film demonstrates a ‘Zen absurdist’ aesthetic that is uniquely Jarmusch’s own, attention must be paid to other uses of formal structure. Visual balance within shot compositions is particularly important and subtly reinforces the explicit use of twins as parallels within the film. Background structures often have repeated elements (two white picket fence posts, two large steel girders, two no parking signs). Significant, or dominant colours within each shot are also very often paired up (the pink door of Paterson’s house with the pink petals of the garden flowers, the red road sign with the red of a postbox handle). Then there is the use of paralleling within reflections upon mirrors and windows. This latter element is clearly used to focus attention upon the conversion of the commonplace into their poetic reinvention through Paterson’s associative imagination. This is illustrated by an early sequence in the film where first we see Paterson pull away from the bus depot, presented in a medium fixed frame shot. Then we have a mobile tracking shot, moving in motion with the bus, where the city passes by on one half of the screen, and is reflected in reverse on the windscreen of the bus on the other half of the screen. This is followed by a profile shot of Paterson driving the bus, with fainter reflections of the passing city in the windows around him. Finally, the camera positions itself as if from the driver’s seat of the bus, looking through the windscreen at the road ahead, and the city as it passes by; this is effectively a POV shot and that POV is Paterson’s. From that point onward in the film, Paterson’s looking becomes an active work of poetic transformation, most often presented in the form of tightly composed close-ups of inconsequential everday ‘things’ (a bus door handle, the underside of a curtain and lampshade, a pair of workmen’s boots).

Throughout the film Jarmusch uses the deliberately naïve poetry of award-winning New York poet Ron Padgett – a sly heading-off of the bland criticism quite a few complacently condescending film critics have made about the ‘typically awful’ quality of poetry in films. The way the lines are presented upon the screen, in an approximation of Paterson’s handwritten scrawl, as he intones them in his head, is evocative of a similar device Jarmusch used in his 1999 film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, when Forest Whitaker’s character recites passages from the Japanese spiritual text the Hagakure. Furthermore, the film begins and ends with prominent sections of soundtrack by Sqürl, Jarmusch and Carter Logan’s noise-rock band. These pieces of music are heavily comprised from found sounds (bird noises, wind, leaves rustling) and the meditative sounds of a Buddhist singing bowl. This neatly affirms the cyclical nature of the film’s structure, whilst presenting us with that idea of variation, a harmonic note sustained and transformed.

 

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Aha..

 

One of the true beauties of the film is its dwelling upon commonalities rather than conflict. Jarmusch never allows any particular scene to develop in a dramatic fashion. The closest that the film comes to something that fits that criteria is when Everett takes a toy gun and makes a pretence of killing Marie, or himself, as because without love life isn’t worth living. For a moment Paterson is thrust into an unwelcome action mode, evoking the early image of the military photo by his bedside. Disarming Everett in one cleanly aggressive move Paterson seems taken aback by a moment of impulse, of reaction. This moment comes at the end of an unsettling day, one in which Paterson woke up late, his colleague at the bus station didn’t talk with him, and his bus broke down. The serenity and the harmonious rhythms of his working week were disrupted. It is worth noting that throughout the film Driver plays Paterson as a reactive figure, polite and courteous, only speaking when spoken to, or when showing concern for someone’s wellbeing. Communication is led by others, more often than not Laura. This crucially changes in the films penultimate sequence.

The week that structures the film builds to a destructive crescendo that is a divestment of sorts for Paterson. The ‘secret book’ that he squirrels away the sole copy of his poems within is destroyed by Marvin – an anthropomorphic performance of jealousy made in the editing suite. Paterson doesn’t rage over this loss, if anything Laura is angrier and more vocal. Instead a stoical acceptance is sketched out over the course of an evening and a morning. That stoical acceptance becomes something beatific when Paterson comes across Masatoshi Nagase’s Japanese poet at Passaic Falls. Nagase’s concerted efforts to politely draw out information from Paterson about Paterson (both the man and the place) foreground the reactive nature of the bus driver’s interactions. Then, in the space between two leading questions, Paterson finally feels compelled to offer something more of himself to Nagase. He briefly talks about Frank O’Hara and his work. Nagase then delivers a blank notebook into Paterson’s empty hands, a close-up of the plastered index and little finger confirming that Nagase is in fact the same character that he played in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989). After the poet’s departure, Paterson turns his attention back to the Passaic Falls. He is now staring directly into the camera. The shot tracks in on the eyes of the protagonist, an inner calm being offset by a renewed attentiveness to what is in front of him – the poetic vision renewed. Like Nagase’s poet, Paterson breathes poetry.

Ten of the Year 2016: A Quiet Passion

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A Quiet Passion

Dir: Terence Davies

Starr: Cynthia Nixon (Emily Dickinson), Jennifer Ehle (Vinnie Dickinson), Catherine Bailey (Vryling Buffam), Keith Carradine (Edward Dickinson), Duncan Duff (Austin Dickinson)

UK / Belgium, 125mins

A few years ago I had the good fortune to interview Terence Davies in London whilst he was working on the post-production elements of his Sunset Song (2015) adaptation. That film was his second feature in the space of four years, which hinted at a return to the productivity of the 1990s, before the funding problems of the new millennium. During the interview Davies claimed that he still had three more projects that he wished to realise, time and money allowing. One of them was a biopic of the great American poet Emily Dickinson, a literary figure that academic studies, led by the likes of Harold Bloom, have somehow converted into a romanticised and idealised secular saint of suffering and repression. Less than a year after Sunset Song Davies has realised that project, and Davies being Davies he cannot resist giving Dickinson’s life a tragic arc, yet her final pain-wracked years of insularity are not his main concern. In A Quiet Passion he appears to have set himself the task of locating all the vibrancy and vital spark in a woman carving out a niche for herself in the forbiddingly patriarchal spaces of a puritanically-minded and rapidly industrialising late-19th century United States. This is not the remote, detached and seemingly apolitical figure of literary legend, but rather a determined and self-determining passion artist.

 

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Of central importance to the film is the sororal relationship between Emily and Vinnie.

 

The film does not stray far beyond Davies’ preference for interior space, being almost entirely shot in studio spaces at AED studios in Belgium, with key sequences and external shots utilising Dickinson’s actual home at Amherst. Yet where it differs from Davies’ previous work is in the sheer radiance with which Dickinson’s home is lit. This is generally a bright and airy domestic space, that makes the disarmingly erotic night time interludes seem even more effective in their suffocating combination of curiosity and dread. One of the few scenes that does occur outside the confines of the Dickinson home and grounds is the one with which the film opens. This is a brilliantly compressed and compacted condemnation of organised religion’s desire for dominance – again the kind of thing that Davies’ has frequently excelled at in the past. As a stern headmistress of a convent school attempts to break the young Emily’s (played by Emma Bell) wilfulness by isolating her from her more pliant and conforming peers, we clearly see the tyranny of a society structured around personal repression and the expectation of female servitude. It is as pugnacious a political statement as Werner Herzog’s brutally straight-forward boot heel opening to his adaptation of Woyzeck (1979), and reminds the audience that Davies initially made his mark with the searing sledgehammer imagery of his early Trilogy (1976-1983).

 

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The opening sequence is a masterfully compressed piece of pugnacious politicking, reminiscent of Davies’ work in his Trilogy.

 

This is Davies’ third film that takes the US as its location after the literary adaptations of The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000). Whereas, both of those films were shaped, to a large degree, upon their literary source texts, this is Davies’ first venture Stateside with a script entirely of his own devising. This appears to liberate the director as A Quiet Passion works as a biopic through the certainty with which it goes about imagining a living, breathing and impassioned Dickinson, quite rightly paying scant attention to her documented life.

Cynthia Nixon unexpectedly dazzles as the adult Emily, at once waspish, principled, venomous and ethereal. Nixon’s comic abilities have never really been in doubt, and the caustic and witty repartee she shares with Catherine Bailey’s Vryling Buffam, are some of the funniest exchanges of any film this year. Yet the way in which Nixon subtly inhabits the physical pain of Dickinson’s later years, and the complexity that she brings to Dickinson’s relationships with her father (another well-rounded patriarchal turn from Keith Carradine) and sister Vinnie (a piquant performance from the wonderful Jennifer Ehle), makes one wonder why she has never really been entrusted with a dramatic lead role before. The latter sororal relationship is central to Davies’ humanising of Dickinson. Vinnie is both confidante and grounding force in Emily’s life, and Davies frequently frames the sisters in neatly composed two-shots that convey a sly personal language of knowing looks and secret gestures.

Sparing use of Dickinson’s poetry exemplifies Davies’ absolute control of his material. Where other directors would have found it difficult to resist the temptation of letting the poetry blandly narrate, Davies’ always finds a way to relate these poetic inserts to dramatic action, so that they become outpourings of Dickinson’s passion, an interior within an interior. This is never more effective than in the film’s most overt moments of eroticism. There are two sequences within the film in which Dickinson imagines her domestic sphere invaded by a shadowy male figure, who opens a door within the house that illuminates the darkness, and appears to create a doubling of perspective, as the camera apprehends the male figure in motion, before seeming to assume this male figures’ perspective, which ultimately reveals itself as Dickinson’s gaze. This is comparable to Jim Jarmusch’ use of reflective surfaces within another poet film from 2016, Paterson. It encapsulates the poetic process as one which involves the conversion of ‘reality’ into ‘poetry’ through the experience and poetic imagination of the poet/perceiver.

 

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Davies and his DOP Florian Hoffmeister make much of the extremities of light and dark throughout the film.

 

After the profound disappointment that I experienced with Sunset Song, an adaptation that I had, perhaps, far too much invested in, A Quiet Passion came as a welcome return to form from a filmmaker I have a great deal of affection for. Strikingly Davies’ worked once more with his DOP from The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Florian Hoffmeister, but to very different effect. The muted and musty imagery of that post-WWII melodrama, gives way to an intense concern with the extremities of light and dark, day and night in A Quiet Passion. The sharp clarity of sun-drenched drawing rooms, are matched by the obscuring shadows of night’s blackness. There is an interesting ancillary dichotomy at work in this visual patterning, with the revealing light of day proving all too chastening to Dickinson, bringing with it an initial sense of domestic propriety that the poet feels oppressively. The deep, enfolding darkness of night, punctuated by the occasional flare – or glowing orb – of lamp and candlelight, is a private, and by poetic extension, liberating space in which Dickinson can locate those things that elude her daytime existence. This Emily is both imaginatively revealed and deliberately obscured in Davies’ lithe comic drama, that casts darkness into light and then asks its audience ‘what do you see’?

Ten of the Year 2016: Further Beyond

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Further Beyond (2016)

Dir: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy

Starr: Denise Gough (Christine), Alan Howley (Joe), Jose Miguel Jimenez (Ambrosio O’Higgins)

Ireland, 89mins

Mubi have done a tremendous job this year of picking up festival films that genuinely deserve a wider audience and would have otherwise fallen through the myriad cracks in UK distribution (potentially the worst in Europe). Further Beyond is the latest film – a deconstructed documentary – from Irish filmmaking duo Lawlor & Molloy. It is one of the funniest,  most moving and stimulating films I have seen this year. I must confess that I hadn’t seen any of their previous work, but the excellence and ingenuity of their work here has certainly whetted my appetite for further exploration.

Exploration is in fact at the heart of Further Beyond, which sets itself up as a film about the failure to make a film. Lawlor and Molloy had become fascinated with the remarkable story of Irish tenant farmer Ambrose O’Higgins, who left County Sligo and hopped on a boat to Cádiz in his thirties. From Cadiz O’Higgins rechristens himself Ambrosio, adopts the noble identifier of the 1st Marquis of Osorno, learns Spanish and travels to the New World, where he becomes governor-general of Chile. The two filmmakers had initially wanted to make a feature film about the subject, however, they were not interested in what was already known about the O’Higgins story, but rather the circumstances of his departure for, and arrival in, Chile. This proved an unattractive proposition to potential film backers, so Lawlor and Molloy do a peculiarly thrawn thing, they go ahead and make a film about the failure to make the film they wanted to make.

Working with a paltry production budget Lawlor and Molloy have managed to put together a fascinating pseudo-documentary about memory, knowledge, land, history, heritage and the way in which we can become dislocated from all the things that define us and give our existences meaning. I do not think it too far of a stretch to compare Further Beyond to great works of Irish literature, such as Flann O’Brien’s infinitely digressive work At-Swim-Two-Birds (1939), Laurence Sterne’s masterwork of significant insignificance The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1767) or Francis Stuart’s unsettling and slippery part-memoir Black List Section H (1971). Like all these novels Further Beyond is primarily concerned with the construction of meaning, and begins with an ostensible goal of finding out what takes a poor tenant farmer from Sligo, to Cádiz, and then on to Chile. This goal is soon subsumed by digressions, divertissements and formal deconstructions, that cumulatively seek to undermine contentious ‘commonplace’ ideas of historical narrative. By its end this isn’t just a film about the failure to make a film about Ambrose O’Higgins, it has become a deftly developed exploration of how mutable meaning is, especially the more it is probed and interrogated.

 

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Throughout the opening sections of the film O’Higgins is presented to the audience in medium shots from behind, or long shots where he is just a small constituent part of the wider landscape.

 

The opening sequences of the film places O’Higgins (as played by Jose Miguel Jimenez) upon some high Andean peak. The shot framing favours the long shot, or a medium shot from behind the actor, thus strongly suggesting a distance between audience and subject. From off this lofty mountain peak the film will force O’Higgins to descend, until at ground level, in some Sligo field, we will be able to scrutinise his story far more carefully, with as little of the romantic affectation as possible. Yet the descent from legend to life proves fraught with the vertiginous unsettlings and displacements that belong to any complex articulation of history, Lawlor and Molloy are merely allowing us to see behind the screen, to look in to the construction and artifice of filmmaking, and by extension any attempt at storytelling.

Further Beyond was the second film of 2016 that demonstrated the power of foregrounding narration as a specific, and particular instance of performativity in film, and one that by its aural nature normally goes unseen. At this year’s Berlinale I was fortunate enough to see Ruth Beckermann’s hypnotic film Die Geträumten (2016) about the recording of a radio production of the erotic and romantic correspondence between poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. What was most remarkable in this film was the way in which the performance of the narration and recitation associated with the radio production highlighted the manner in which the actors working upon the piece began to construct, as if unwittingly, a physical interpretation of the character’s they were playing. This then fed back into and inflected their equally constructed screen personae, lending a degree of genuine uncanniness to the carefully framed, and entirely fictional, proceedings of the film. Lawlor and Molloy perform a similar trick in utilising the voice actors Denise Gough and Alan Howley to inhabit self-reflexive screen versions of themselves.

 

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Denise Gough as a Voice Over Artist hired to play director Christine Molloy, a multi-layered approach to the performative aspects of film narration.

 

This decision to foreground the performative aspects of narration leads to one of the most powerful sequences in the film. Howley, as Lawlor, introduces a recording of his mother doing a rendition of Sylvia Sidney in City Streets (1931), the first film to utilise what we would now call voiceover narration. This rendition is preparation for part of an aborted television production of The Playboy of the Western World, that Lawlor had been working on.  As part of this performance he asks his mother to fire a gun at the camera, then catches her look of surprise when the gun actually goes off. Lawlor and Molloy, by this stage, have already successfully revealed to us the mechanics of image construction and manipulation, for narrative and emotional effect. Every element of what is shown in Further Beyond becomes something to be questioned. This, though, only makes the narrative reveal all the more affecting, when we are informed that this footage is from the mid-nineties, and Lawlor’s mother has since passed away. The way in which this footage is interrogated and recontextualised as a binary strand of the film’s concerns with exile makes for one of the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying cinematic moments of the year.

The sheer chutzpah of Lawlor and Molloy’s project of aborted projects that have gone before, expresses itself most effectively in the interstices between word and image. It is a film that constantly seeks its audience to reconcile itself to how little we can truly know of other people’s lives. Working from the grandiose tale of Ambrose O’Higgins through to the trans-Atlantic upbringing of Lawlor’s own mother, it discerns an exilic quality in all attempts at understanding. Just as people physically journey across borders and boundaries, simultaneously looking to discover and escape, so the film presents the audience with a series of visual conundrums, sites in which slippage of meaning is all that can truly be located. These sites of mutability and instability come together as a testament to L.P. Hartley’s notion of the past as a foreign country. They also serve to accentuate the remoteness of ‘the other’ – the camera, despite its very best efforts, can never allow the audience more than a fleeting sense of intimacy. Finally, this approach evokes James Joyce’s direct attack upon his homeland, which stands as one of the twentieth century’s strongest articulations of estrangement and exile: “No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland, but flees afar as though from a country that has undergone the visitation of an angered Jove”.

Ten of the Year 2016: Kati Kati

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Kati Kati (2016)

Dir: Mbithi Masya

Starr: Nyokabi Gethaiga (Kaleche), Peter King Mwania (King), Elsaphan Njora (Thoma)

Kenya / Germany, 75mins

Kati Kati is a dream retreat from the world, a peaceful holiday resort in the middle of the Serengeti, where your every day is occupied with games and activities, and anything you want can be yours simply by writing it down on a piece of paper. Those staying in Kati Kati have no idea how they came to be in such a wonderful place, and they have no idea when, or how, they will leave it. But why would anyone want to leave?
Mbithi Masya’s tightly compacted and elliptical debut feature was the stand out fiction film screening from this year’s Africa in Motion (AiM). It came to AiM having already won the FIPRESCI prize for the Discovery programme at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), earlier in the year. Having been developed by Masya and his screenwriter Mugambi Nthiga during a film training and development program in Nairobi funded by Tom Tykwer and Marie Stenman, the film was then picked up for production by Tykwer and Stenman’s production company One Fine Day.

 

Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga), the nominal heroine of the film, literally emerges from out of nowhere at the movie’s opening. Stumbling upon an incongruously pretty and serene holiday complex, Kaleche walks in upon a group of holidaymakers engaged in a game of Charades. Where is she and how has she got here? Kaleche has come to Kati Kati, an oasis of calm in the middle of the Serengeti. The fact that all the holidaymakers seem to be expecting her is enough to make Kaleche run – something that has already been predicted by some of the others. Running away from Kati Kati, back out in to the seemingly endless surrounding savannah Kaleche is further panicked by the sight of the other holidaymakers animatedly pursuing her. Just as she thinks she is pulling away from them another key facet of her predicament is revealed as she runs into an invisible barrier. You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.

 

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Relaxing by the pool… but what lies beneath?

 

This is the disturbing and intriguing opening to a film that uncompromisingly examines the various manifestations, processes and reactions toward guilt, both within the individual and the wider community. The idyllic benignity of Kati Kati and the breathtaking plain land that surrounds it is just one of the many creepily claustrophobic aspects of the film. Initially the other residents, the likes of Thoma (Elsaphan Njora), King (Peter King Mwania) and Grace (Fidelis Nyambura), seem to be happily engaged in idling each day away in accordance with a loose schedule of activities and amusing diversions. The resort is kept spotlessly clean, but nobody seems to know who keeps it clean. No staff are ever present. Food seems to magically replenish itself. Whilst the holidaymakers need only write something down on paper and it will be delivered to them in due course. However, this seeming Eden is underpinned by the knowledge that the holidaymakers initially share with Kaleche, everyone in Kati Kati is already dead.

 

The beauty of Masya’s film is in the way in which it presents a purgatorial afterlife that raises more questions than it answers, but never once leaves the audience feeling cheated. Kati Kati is a variation of Sartre’s play Huis Clos (1944), with Kaleche acting as the narrative catalyst who rouses the other holidaymakers from their aimless routines, forcing them to gradually question what they are doing in this place that seems purpose built to pacify. Each member of the community begins to examine why it is that they are stuck in the resort, although not everyone wants to become unstuck. There are inexplicable presences within the film that gradually reveal their wider significance. All these subtle hauntings are directly linked to some aspect of the guilt that fixes each holidaymaker in Kati Kati. Part of the object of the resort seems to be the prevention of remembering, which is then, in turn, a key obstacle to acknowledging and dealing with guilt. As Kaleche gradually pieces together her own past existence, one of the other main characters is shown to be directly intertwined with this past and has a vested interest in preventing Kaleche from remembering. Masya and Nthiga have achieved a very rare thing in this debut. They have created a concrete alternate reality, with an intricate internal logic, that is nonetheless elusive, mysterious and compelling. Much of this atmosphere is established through a visual process of alienation. Masya works with the safari scenic landscapes of the Serengeti, but has filmed them using harsh white light and desaturated colour, that makes these vistas simultaneously familiar and unrecognisable. An overly attentive handheld camera, which frequently gives the impression of spying upon the protagonists, also helps to give visual strength to the notion of haunting presences lurking within and around the frame.

 

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One of the fascinating aspects of the film is the way in which ‘whiteness’ becomes something horrifying to behold.

 

With the film’s running time being just 75 minutes the director has resolutely pared back the narrative to the point where it has an almost poetic quality, rich in allusion and allegory. That said, it also contains some interventions into the contemporary politics of Kenya, most notably in the story elements relating to King’s presence in Kati Kati. King is one of the most troubling ancillary characters within the film. He is the one person among the group that is unyielding in his abdication of responsibility for his actions. It should come as no surprise that his dark secrets are some of the most disturbing, and indirectly reference a sensational news story that occurred in the run up to the last set of elections in Kenya. That said, what lingers most in the memory is not Kati Kati’s reflections on contemporary Kenya, but rather its unerring ability to navigate a truly uncanny space. Kati Kati marks a supremely confident feature debut that surely augurs well for both the director and the Kenyan filmmaking scene that has helped to foster him.