Film Comment Selects is one of those imperative programs that allow us to wiggle around the timid vagaries of what’s become of the art-house distribution market — to see what’s boiling in world cinema without concessions to (gak, ptooey) “accessibility.” Programmed by the magazine’s departing editor, Gavin Smith, the series, now in its sixteenth year, has its fair share of hot films slated for release in 2016, alongside a raft of odd festival pickings seemingly designed to give the exhibitors an anxiety rash where their wallets should be.
Admittedly, Aleksei German Jr.’s Under Electric Clouds would be a tough sell anywhere, though no more so than German père’s Hard to Be a God, which despite all odds had a breakout profile last year. The younger German’s fourth feature is an epic sociocultural discussion set in the desolate Russia of 2017 (the Revolution’s centennial). An array of characters despairingly face off against the capitalist future, when history is being sold to tourists, nosebleeds are prevalent, a global war is imminent, and mass marketing (ads even projected onto the sky itself) controls society. Imagine a windy Sokurov talk-marathon Russo-adapted from J.G. Ballard or Don DeLillo: German is exploring, not declaring, and his landscape of terminal beaches and abandoned skyscraper-skeletons expresses his ambivalence with a searing eloquence.
Narrative is just as whimsically constructed in Malgré la Nuit, the new film by Philippe Grandrieux, whose oeuvre scans like the suicidal daydream of a junkie during a trap-house date. Not that that’s a bad thing. Oneiric, shadowy, intoxicated with self-destruction and sexual danger, Grandrieux’s films are an abstract-ish acquired taste, and this is no exception: a man, a missing woman, two other self- debasing women with the same name, sexual compulsions that lead to rape, sadism, latex bondage, snuff porn, and murder, all of it suggested in a tangle of bad-breath close-ups and infectious death wishes. A writhing depressive’s Gaspar Noé, Grandrieux is all about the fleshy moments, and here they’re all tinged with doom.
Relatively speaking, Damien Odoul’s La Peur (The Fear) is an orthodox experience, a letters-to-home French WWI combat saga that compensates for a small budget (and a cipher of a protagonist) with intimate battle scenes that suggest more than show and details of carnage that nag at the memory. Vuk Rsumovic’s No One’s Child is also familiar, but immediate: a Serbian feral-child tale based on a true story, made hypnotic by the all-in performance of pint-sized Denis Muric as the wolf-boy struggling against domestication in a hapless modern world — and, in Rsumovic’s masterstroke, eventually returning to beastliness by way of the Yugoslav Wars.
On another planet entirely, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister lays out a broken-family melodrama involving three grown Japanese sisters adopting a just-found half-sister; it’s so sweet and affirmative the cynics will scoff, until the gentle grip of community has them by the throat. Almost as sentimental, in its own way, is Ross Lipman’s Notfilm, an affectionate documentary about the making of Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965) that’s six times longer than the famous short it examines.
Still, this year’s all about the veterans. Iranian filmmaker Kianoush Ayari’s résumé stretches back to the Revolution, but he’s all but unknown here, so you might be unprepared for The Paternal House. A scalding attack on old-world traditions, it begins with hair-pulling family warfare that climaxes with a matter-of-fact honor killing; thereafter, the murdered daughter’s basement- buried body haunts the family for seven decades and multiple generations, right up until the home is slated for demolition and the bones must be guiltily moved. Structured around one rib-kicking gender-war confrontation after another, it’s been unsurprisingly banned (as “too violent”) in Iran.
Meanwhile, Cosmos, an adaptation of the famously unadaptable Witold Gombrowicz novel, is Andrzej Zulawski’s first film in fifteen years. But you’ll be disappointed if you come expecting to have your skull split by emotional stress and careening visual hyperbole in the usual Zulawskian mode: This is a toast-dry absurdity, translating (and retranslating via English subtitles) Gombrowicz’s linguistic pranks and making wry farce out of a meaningfully meaningless tale about the denizens of a Portuguese guesthouse, each one amiably deranged by existentialist obsessions that amount to nothing at all. Slugs on a tea tray, dead animals left hanging on strings, a creeping mold stain shaped like a giant vagina, unanswerable lusts and unbearable smells — all signposts to a mystery plumbed by a frustrated young novelist (the dazzlingly epicene Jonathan Genet) who may just be writing Cosmos itself. Despite Zulawski’s lurid intensity, Cosmos is also relaxed, salted with cinematic in-jokes, a septuagenarian’s semi-surreal afternoon idyll lacking any spikes in blood pressure.
The seventies club also includes Marco Bellocchio, whose Blood of My Blood is an odd diptych comparing a medieval nun’s torturous inquisition (did Satan compel her coupling with a priest?) and modern-day life in what remains of her convent-prison, situated in an Italy trying desperately to stop time and retain social control. The 76-year-old Bellocchio’s equations are both elliptical and pungent, while Terence Davies, at a mere 70, nurtures his own sharpest instincts with his take on the agrarian Scottish classic Sunset Song, finding in the lyrical hardscrabbliness the same nostalgia for home, sympathy for childhood, and dread of a monster father he manifested in his autobio masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives. The new movie centers on the maturation of a pure-hearted farm girl (Agyness Deyn, a Brit runway model) with a flog-happy da’ (Peter Mullan) and a litany of tragedies awaiting her before marital bliss and the crucifixions of WWI. Davies is an ace with details, from the social rituals to the sounds emanating from that farmhouse, and the whole, if built around an improbably perfect heroine, is illuminated like a Dutch Golden Age painting.
Film Comment Selects 2016
Film Society of Lincoln Center