Notes from CPH PIX: Xavier Dolan vs Andrzej Zulawski

Blogpost, Canadian cinema, cph pix 2011, European cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I am writing this blog from CPH PIX, where my new film, Afterimages (William Brown, UK, 2010) will be playing on 22 April at 14h15 at the Dagmar and on 27 April at 22h30 at the Husets Biograf.

I include this information on the off-chance that anyone reading this blog is from or in Copenhagen – and that this mention might in turn boost the number of people attending. There is very little web presence for Afterimages at present – although this is understandable because not many people have seen it. And so I thought I ought to do some self-promotion. Apologies if this is too callous, particularly on the day that Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya.

Either way, while no doubt I shall blog a bit about the experience of being at CPH PIX as a festival, really I shall try to dedicate this blog to the films that I see here (and to promote my own, as mentioned above – although this is not strictly limited to Afterimages, since I also had a very small part – apparently on the cutting room floor – in Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film, Vénus Noire/Black Venus, France/Italy/Belgium, 2010, which also plays here during my stay).

So… The first film I saw today was Les Amours Imaginaires/Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 2010).

I had been told by one of the CPH programmers whom I met this morning that Heartbeats was a departure from the disgustingly young Dolan’s first film, J’ai tué ma mère/I Killed My Mother (Canada, 2009). The programmer did confess to not having seen Dolan’s first film, made when he was 19, and so I don’t feel too bad about contradicting him, for, if anyone has seen and liked J’ai tué ma mère, then you will in part know what to expect and should enjoy Heartbeats. For, like its predecessor, Dolan’s new film features arch framings, lots of slow motion shots of people walking and touching, an elliptical narrative style separated by black frames, some prolonged MTV-style sections, and a delight in leafy, autumnal forest scenes.

How it differs, perhaps, is the way in which Dolan seems to have swallowed some Pier Paolo Pasolini in the gap between the films. I say this because Heartbeats is somewhat redolent of Pasolini’s wonderful Teorema/Theorem (Italy, 1968) in that it features a mysterious young man (here, Niels Schneider, as opposed to Terence Stamp) who enters into the lives of a young couple (here Dolan himself and Monia Chokri, as opposed to a family environment), and he seduces pretty much everyone (although here he sleeps with no one, at least as far as we can tell). This may make the film in fact sound very different to Theorem, and it might be my over-reading of Dolan, like Pasolini, as a ‘queer’ filmmaker that links them (with François Ozon, who himself sort of remade Theorem with his own Sitcom (France, 1998), also playing a role in my thinking). But this is what struck me most throughout the film, not least because of the way that Dolan frames Schneider at several key moments – against a monochrome background, looking down and to the side, as if lost in whimsical thought.

(To continue the ‘queer’ links, there is also a strong reference to Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, USA/Netherlands, 2004), in that Dolan’s character, Francis, dreams of Schneider’s Nico at one point in a similar pose, but standing under a shower of marshmallows, which is similar to the shower of sugar-coated breakfast cereals that Araki’s paedophile movie pictures.)

Like Theorem, Heartbeats is about the violent effect that beauty can have on us – violent in the sense that we lose our sense of reason and carry out acts that normally we would never do simply for the sake of catching a greater glimpse of the subject of our admiration. But where Pasolini does go for the family, here Dolan simply goes for 20-something Québecois.

Obsession must involve an element of projection: to (believe that we) feel so strongly about someone we barely know must involve us creating a version of the person whom we crave that does not necessarily conform to how or who they really are. Dolan captures this well, not least through the When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, USA, 1989) style vox pops that other, otherwise uninvolved stalkers offer from time to time during the film.

However, while Nico is supposedly the reason that best friends Francis and Marie (Chokri) become so obsessed, they seem to get more access to him than we do. That is to say, Nico does tell them that he does seismological work from time to time (though this is probably a lie, because while he says that this pays him very well, his mum – a dancer played by Anne Dorval – still gives him an allowance every month), and he does tell them that he also studies literature at McGill, but beyond this we learn next to nothing about him. Whatever conversations and good times that the trio have – either as a trio or as Nico-Marie or Nico-Francis configurations within their triangle – we do not see them; instead, as mentioned, Dolan offers us slo-mo shots of hands conveying longing and frustration, of contemplative glances, and little actual conversation.

The superficial nature of the obsession from both Francis and Marie is signalled early on: Nico, supposedly a country bumpkin Adonis who has just arrived in Montreal, is sat at a table while they prepare food in a kitchen. At this dinner party, then, Nico is only ever already an image to both Marie and Francis, and penetrating beyond that not only does not happen, but also deliberately does not happen. In other words, it perhaps not supposed to happen.

I hesitate with where I want to go next in this review. I feel tempted to say that Dolan shows his age by allowing his characters to become so obsessed. Marie is 25, and so should in theory be beyond such infatuations, and so I don’t really credit this as a believable story. This is borne out by the end of the film: as is to be expected, not only might Nico be a liar, but he also strings along and then ‘brutally’ discards both Marie and Francis, only to disappear to Asia. Upon his return a year later, he throws a party, at which Marie and Francis both spurn him in public – with Francis letting out some strange cat hissing noise that signals that he does not want contact with Nico anymore. In other words, while I might conceivably not put obsession past someone over 25 years of age, this childish response a year after everything has fallen apart seems to me to be a cut caused by Nico that surely could not have been that deep since he, or we at least, never got to know him that well. And because, from this, we can only conclude that Nico is in fact a bit boring, if utterly beautiful.

Marie and Francis love images. Marie styles herself on Audrey Hepburn, not least because Nico says that she is his favourite, while Francis is a sucker for James Dean. Dolan’s stylised mise-en-scène would suggest that he loves images as well – and that he wants us to love them, too. As a cinephile, I can happily say that I also love images. But even if Dolan’s film is a reflection on what I shall nebulously call ‘soullessness,’ it becomes hard not to believe that his film is also a bit soulless.

Not only is this because the film is an exercise in good looks with little attention paid to character (even if there are pensive gazes aplenty), but also because of the ending of the film. I had caught myself thinking that Schneider bears more than a passing resemblance to French heart-throb Louis Garrel on several occasions during the film, and as the film ends, both Marie and Francis see none other than Louis Garrel at a party and, so the soundtrack – the recurring them of ‘Bang Bang’ by Dalida – suggests, the whole cycle starts again with them walking towards him in slow motion.

It is possible that we live in a universe in which self-involved humans are obsessed only with images and the surface of things, and in which humans never learn anything, but instead are condemned repeatedly to making the same mistakes. But I am not sure that I believe this; and I think that if I did believe this, I would love Dolan’s film. When the truth is that I really do not. Images are great, and the force and power of images are great. We live in a superficial, Barbie world, and whatever feelings we have for people are real enough, at least to us. But the power of feelings suggested in Heartbeats were not convincing for me. And while in J’ai tué ma mère, I got the sense of a wickedly detached sense of humour from time to time, there was not enough evidence here for me to think of this film as a critique. At a certain point in time, elliptical editing may well still challenge the norms of narrative cinema, but it also reduces films to moments that do not cohere – in terms of our understanding of character psychology at least – across time.

I shall perhaps be able to express this better through a comparison to Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, France/West Germany, 1981), which also has an elliptical method of telling its story. But first I might also compare Heartbeats to another threesome film featuring the self-same Louis Garrel, namely The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/UK/Italy, 2003). In that film, not only do all three members of the love triangle have sex (and in that film, two of the three are brother and sister), but the film also has political resonance, since it is perhaps ultimately about the failure of the 1968 generation to create a meaningful alternative to ‘the system.’ Dolan’s film, alas, lacks this political bite, even if it is a film that has cynicism as a common ingredient. Perhaps Heartbeats is trying to suggest that a new 1968 is around the corner (as many dyed-in-the-wool – and potentially outmoded – Marxists like to think). But given the ‘no sex please’ attitude – particularly of Nico – who just turns out to be a bit boring – then Heartbeats – perhaps as a final recuperation of the film – becomes an account of the self-destructive libidinous forces of the ill-communicating, self-absorbed urban generation that is all trousers and no nudity. And which want affirmation in terms of sexual orientation by having the most beautiful not just fuck, but also (fail to) fall in love with you.

In comparison to Heartbeats, the mindfuck that is Zulawski’s Possession takes elliptical narration to a whole new level. Zulawski’s work is part of a retrospective here at CPH PIX and apparently I missed the director by about half an hour when I arrived in Copenhagen. A pity, but then again, I had not seen any of his films before Possession, so the real pity is not that I missed a director by whom I had not seen a film, but that I had not seen a film before I missed him.

Possession tells a 1980s-set Cold War story of a seeming spy, Mark (Sam Neill), who returns home after a prolonged absence to wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and son Bob (Michael Hogben). It quickly transpires that Mark and Anna have drifted apart during his absence and that she has taken up with new age transcendental sex explorer, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). Except that in actual fact she has not. Instead, she has really taken up with a demonic creature whom she keeps in an apartment downtown, and who will be ‘complete’ once Anna has fed to him enough people, including a pair of homosexual private detectives that Mark hires to follow her.

The film ends up with Mark killing Heinrich and going round to his house to tell his mother (Johanna Hofer), with whom he still lives. She takes some drugs and kills herself. Anna, meanwhile, kills her best friend Margit (Margit Carstensen), or so we are led to believe, and shags the weird creature in her house. Mark, desperate to save Anna (perhaps), stops the police from finding her by shooting one of his former spy colleagues. They give chase, end up killing Mark as he tries to reach the top of a high rise. Anna arrives with the ‘complete’ creature, who looks just like Mark. Anna and Mark die – leaving the creature-Mark to go find Bob, who has been left in the care of his school teacher, Helen (also played by Isabelle Adjani). As the creature knocks on Helen’s door through a pane of frosted glass, Bob tells her not to open the door and goes to drown himself in a bath, while the sound of (presumably) nuclear bombs starts to fall. In part this might be because Mark, who had quit whatever spy forces he was working for to work on his family life, did not fulfil the contract with another, unnamed spy, who, refusing to ‘trade’ (or whatever was supposed to happen) now that Mark is no longer on the job, perhaps sets off the end of the world. Except that this other spy, who is known his pink socks, might also be one of Mark’s employers/colleagues, as we see at the end of the film when one of them (Maximilien Ruethlein) is seen wearing said socks in the chase sequence at the high rise.

Add to this the fact that the film is set in Berlin, with images of East German guards looking at Mark through binoculars from the other side of the Berlin Wall, and this is not only a confusing film, but one that lends itself deeply to a projection of Cold War paranoia.

Nowhere is this better marked out than in the mise-en-scène, where many of the sets are just empty apartments and empty streets; one would think Berlin almost deserted from this movie. And this, in turn, reflects perhaps the empty interior that Dolan, in another context, is trying to reach for. Except that Zulawski’s cinematography, although never as beautiful as Dolan’s (in fact, just plain ‘ugly’ at certain moments), is also significantly more thought out (as far as this viewer is concerned). For, while Dolan never really gives depth to his images, meaning that we concentrate almost at all times on what is at the surface, Zulawski is happy to film in long shot with a startling regularity, meaning that his characters become lost in the empty spaces through which they wander.

Furthermore, Zulawski puts his props into play with more powerful effect than Dolan does. Meat, knives, creatures, detritus, car wrecks, and other figures that occasionally make it into frame such as tramps (one weird scene has Anna sit down on a Berlin metro train in a fluster, only for the tramp next to her to take a bunch of bananas from her shopping bag, take one, peel it, eat it, while replacing the rest, all without any clue as to why this is happening or what this means) and disabled people in wheelchairs outside a church. Each of these seems deliberately placed and no doubt has a role to play in the overall effect of the film. But where Dolan’s beautiful use of filters (during love scenes that Francis and Marie have with anyone other than Nico) and framing of body parts are glorious to behold, their vacuity is disappointing in comparison to Zulawski’s objects and framings, which seem utterly pregnant with meaning.

The other thing to say about Possession is the emotional pitch at which it takes place. This is a nervous breakdown of a movie, that is hilarious and hysterical in equal measure from start to finish and with no let up. So powerful is this, then I really did find myself wondering why more films are not made like this.

CPH PIX has a strong emphasis on experimental cinema – the kind of stuff you will not see week-in, week-out at the local Odeon. Perhaps this is why my films have been allowed to play there (although this may not say anything special about my films). And watching Possession, one indeed wonders about the grip that narrative expectations have on mainstream film viewers. People walked out of both Possession and Heartbeats, so obviously they are not pleasing everyone – but this also is perhaps more fuel in the fire that cinema seems to have become enslaved by narrative. And in the same way that slavery dehumanises humans such that we only see their function as opposed to their humanity (a wider issue with capitalism?), so, too, does the hegemony of narrative encourage us to see films not as individuals who perhaps have the life of a human being in some respects, but as simply objects that should do certain things only – and we are not really that interested in the secret talents and the hidden aspects of cinema. But watching Zulawski, it makes it feel as though we should be…

I have no idea what the ‘meaning’ of Possession is – but it is fascinating in its desire to put humans into the most extreme emotional situations imaginable, and to let rip. One scene – almost unexplained except in that Anna is talking about a ‘twin’ part of her personality that has died – features Adjani in a metro tunnel literally screaming and shouting and shaking for, who knows?, three or four minutes, before she breaks her shopping bags against a wall, rolls around in milk and mashed up food for a bit more, before vomiting spunks and bleeding from her ears until she is truly covered in filth.

The film is, as I have said, pregnant with meaning. It seems to be ‘about’ lots of things (jealousy, love, marriage, the Cold War, paranoia and surveillance culture). But before this gets too vague, let’s just stick to pregnancy. Zulawski’s film is a monster of a movie that impregnates all who see it. Humans have a tendency to abandon that offspring – the disabled, the unlovely, the unbeautiful – that it can and does give birth to. Zulawski seems to want precisely to explore the possibility of having ugly children, of we viewers having foul and disgusting thoughts, while at the same time seeming to insist that this is not some separate and to-be-discarded aspect of humanity, something that is almost inhuman. Instead, the inhuman thing is not to consider those aspects of humanity, for they are still us and we should cherish or at the very least accept ourselves in all of our limitations, shortcomings, perhaps in short our evil, if we are to understand ourselves and to be able to live a life that involves anything but hypocrisy.

Dolan offers us a study of hypocrisy. One scene does (comically) features Francis masturbating with one of Nico’s pullovers over his head. But even with this ‘unlovely’ scene, the film seems to want to seduce us via its beauty. I don’t believe that this cliché is really true except as precisely a cliché, but we can use it here: beautiful is sometimes a bit boring, whereas an ‘ugly’ film like Possession can be something that we love so much more. I have childish tastes and am a sucker for ‘beauty,’ though putting Heartbeats into comparison with Possession makes me think that I should always be looking for something more, otherwise my life will not only be superficial, but empty and perhaps eschatological on the inside, too.

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