Two women fall prey to surreptitiously placed bear traps, their screams echoing — to no avail — through the rural Quebec woods. A six-year-old tyke in a beetle costume rants hysterically about the plight of France until his clownish father tranquilizes him. A dead dog is hung from a riverside tree, and a village’s worth of goats are slashed or shot to death.
Such ominous (and ominously funny) moments percolate throughout the Museum of the Moving Image’s third annual First Look festival, which features 13 international features and three shorts (including the late Eric Rohmer’s The Bakery Girl of Monceau). Most of the films are receiving their U.S. premiere; most brim with extravagantly bleak imagery, offering up equal doses of desperation and strife — and even, on occasion, something engagingly lighthearted.
Three of the films are documentaries: Caroline Martel’s Wavemakers, from Canada, an exquisitely detailed portrait of Ondes Martenot, the inventor who used gunpowder, piano strings, and extensive knowledge of oscillation to create one of the first electronic instruments. Rohmer in Paris, from U.K. director Richard Misek, is a clever if precious valentine to Eric Rohmer, which compiles a meandering assortment of Rohmer’s most romantic montages — including one, from Les Rendez-vous de Paris, that accidentally featured Misek on a stroll with his mistress. Best of all: David Cairns and Paul Duane’s Natan, from Ireland, a wrenching, overdue ode to the Romanian Jewish film producer Bernard Natan, whose majestic silents and early sound pictures helped put France’s prestigious Pathé studio on the map. In the wake of rising anti-Semitism in the mid-1930s, he was publicly defamed, unjustly imprisoned for fraud, and eventually sent to Auschwitz.
The most haunting film of the festival, from Spain, could also be called a documentary. In The Inner Jungle, director Juan Barrero trains the camera on his real-life girlfriend, Gala Pérez Iñesta, as they cope with an unplanned pregnancy (she wants the kid, he doesn’t). Real ejaculation is shown, and much nude frolicking, but the most lasting impression is of Barrero’s cold, cryptic silences, as his camera zeroes in on Iñesta’s guilt, anger, and lust. (She also plays a mean violin, and will perform a piece in person after the screening.)
Fans of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 time-lapse photography epic Koyaanisqatsi will surely want to see the premiere of his Visitors, which again employs the lustrous music of Philip Glass.
If there is any unifying theme to the rest of the program, it’s the stultifying effects of poverty. Sebastián Sepúlveda’s The Quispe Girls and Aran Hughes and Christina Koutsospyrou’s To the Wolf both follow goat-herding families barely eking out an existence in the mountains of Chile (Quispe) and Greece (Wolf). Quispe is set right around Pinochet’s overthrow in 1974 while Wolf unfolds during the recession of last decade. The films share a preference for scarce dialogue and grim tracking shots of decrepit faces, huddled bodies in caverns and huts, and armies of miserable-looking goats.
In Marcela Said’s lyrical, heartbreaking The Summer of Flying Fish, a well-to-do Chilean teen (Francisca Walker) vacationing at her summer lakehouse discovers her father’s mistreatment of the local Mapuche workers, which escalates into war. All three films are deliberately lacking in modulation; they simmer at the same level of muted rage. (For a more fast-paced diatribe, be sure to check out Ahmad Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters, a tempestuous look at a Cairo prison escapee’s homeward journey amid Egypt’s violent 2011 revolution.)
Conditions are almost as bleak in the festival’s domestic features. Joel Potrykus’s Ape captures the travails of an unhinged, failing Grand Rapids, Michigan, comedian (Joshua Burge), a pyromaniac who takes more delight in burning his worst jokes than in performing his (almost as bad) best ones. With its gritty squalor and its penniless protagonist’s reliance on outmoded appliances (VCRs, Walkmans), Ape resembles an unnerving hybrid of Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Frank Whaley’s overlooked The Jimmy Show. Until Potrykus needlessly weighs down the proceedings with biblical references, it’s one of the more hilariously disturbing films in recent memory.
Equally macabre is Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, about two Canadian girlfriends/ex-convicts struggling to survive under the watchful eye of two former accomplices and a well-meaning but creepy parole officer — all in a woodlands shack.
Fortunately, the two films that bookend the festival are comparatively cheerful, despite sharing an emphasis on economic strife. Alexandre Rockwell’s Little Feet, starring the director’s children, Lana and Nico, follows two neglected siblings who make the most of their broken, disheveled home. They dearly miss their dead mother, but having a drunken father who returns home only to pass out gives them ample time for nude pillow fights and limitless pasta eating. The hour-long film tracks their trek from the inner city to the ocean, where they plan to deposit a dying pet fish. The luminous black-and-white photography and terrific, jazzy soundtrack propel Little Feet out of cutesiness.
The only out-and-out comedy is the festival’s closer, Antonin Peretjatko’s French farce The Rendez-vous of Déjà Vu. Shamelessly lifting the sped-up film and out-of-sync audio from early Godard and the random outbreaks of gun violence from Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the film imagines a France so bereft of wealth that it cuts short its allotted employee summer vacation period. This is devastating news to a quintet of happy-go-lucky youths, but they manage to have a smashing good time anyway, and so do we. After hours spent wallowing in deserted mountains, ghettos, and forests, viewers will appreciate Peretjatko’s — and the festival’s — final shot: dreamy, beautiful twentysomethings lounging on a boat deck.