(Disclaimer: These notes were scribbled in between screenings while waiting in line for other films. Only minor editing, for grammatical and factual purposes, occurred.) Moving on to the second half of my experience at the 2012 AFI Film Festival, I'm at this point overwhelmed by plots, characters, images, and sounds, entering smoothly into a zone of viewer fatigue where films start to blur together and standout moments and provocative imagery become especially vivid. To use Cannes as a reference point, it's roughly the same point in time when the force of Nicole Kidman's notorious urine (from Lee Daniels' The Paperboy) or Carlos Reygadas' crude rendering of the devil (from Post Tenebras Lux) encouraged me to entertain the idea that I was possibly not as awake as I thought I was. The differences between Cannes and AFI as far as living patterns are, of course, abundant (now I have a car, access to more than just baguettes, a consistent bed, and there's an absence of language barriers), but the sensory overload is nearly identical.
Fortunately, in this haze I was greeted by the unique ray of light that is Miguel Gomes' Tabu. While Berberian Sound Studio may remain my most satisfying complete experience thus far, I found myself more inspired, more curious, and more genuinely perplexed by this work, the Portuguese critic/director's third feature. Gomes has managed a film that enters a realm of total unpredictability only ventured into recently by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and in the past by Fellini, Jodorowsky, and Parajanov. Of these filmmakers, Gomes shares the most with Joe: Tabu, like Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady, and Blissfully Yours, has a bifurcated structure whose two halves appear disconnected on the surface but slowly and unexpectedly begin to form associative, poetic links. The first half, which begins after a surreal prologue in the African jungle that probably requires an even greater degree of imaginative association to be tied meaningfully to the rest of the film, concerns the experiences of a melancholy spinster (Teresa Madruga) in dealing with her racist but otherwise warmhearted elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral). I'm not sure if it was the fault of the lulling lushness of Gomes' shallow depth of field photography (one conversation is filmed entirely in close-ups that appear to be rotating slowly around their subjects, but it's really just that the table is spinning) or the low-key, languid nature of the content itself, but I found myself drifting during this section. This happens to me far too often, a situation where an image, a certain lighting technique, a line of dialogue, or the design of a set stimulates filmmaking inspiration inside my own brain that causes my focus to drift from the film in front of me to some vague, shapeless, prospective future film I generally end up not actually pursuing.
Still, whatever disengaging effect the first half had on me was wiped away when Aurora's old flame (voiced by Henrique Espírito Santo) begins telling the story of he and Aurora's past relationship over her deathbed. Suddenly the film switches back to the aged, windswept 16mm look used in the prologue. Starting as what appears to merely be a brief dialogue accompanied by a flashback, the man, known as Gian Luca Ventura (Carloto Cotta), ultimately winds up narrating the remaining hour of Tabu in a hushed, elegiac tone over the sounds of nature and the occasional vintage pop tune. His monologue shifts from the expositional and anecdotal to the poetic and comic and back again while relating in first-person the tale of his years living in a Portuguese colony in Africa in the 60's and falling in love with Aurora (played in this iteration by Ana Moreira), at the time the lover of his friend and bandmate. On the surface, it’s a traditional love triangle, a melodrama in the vein of a great Murnau silent, but the telling (by both Ventura and Gomes) is eccentric and incoherent, and the story (a film within a film?) amasses into something abstract and wistful, the stuff of sensations and glances on dry, sunny days in verdant hills. Gomes' camera is drawn to the wind caressing tall grass, the sun beaming against groups of African children, and the propulsive charm of Ventura at the drum set, and the weight given to these intangibles renders all narrative concerns secondary.
But there's a lot more going on here than just good vibes and relaxing rhythms. Ventura's story is a vision of love half-remembered that is filtered through a cinematic model for interpreting the past: all big, momentous gestures and quietly virtuosic imagery, the second half regurgitates Murnau (whose 1931 feature shares with Tabu a title and a two-part structure and is evidently the central inspiration for Gomes), von Stroheim, Sturges, and Bunuel (these are merely the associations I've turned to; another viewer could summon up different names) into a luscious pool of elusive cinematic referents. The suggestion is that the nature of memory is bound up in the personal experience of cinema, and that time (Gomes uses title cards that indicate single days in the first half and each passing month in the second) becomes warped and selective in hindsight. By the conclusion of this grainy, impressionistic odyssey, it’s easy to forget that there was a first half with dialogue and crisp framings and slim depth-of-field at all. Tabu marks a conversation between two different filmic approaches as much as between the past and present history of Portugal and of filmmaking. There's a whole lot to sift through here and it will require another screening to do so, but for now let me state what is obvious and far from original by now: this is one of the most magical delights of the year.
The serene feeling I had leaving the Tabu screening was no match for the next film on my plate, Amy Seimetz’s hothouse debut Sun Don’t Shine. This relentlessly dour vision of an impulsive and mutually dependent twentysomething couple on the hideout from Florida police with a corpse in the trunk of their beat-up Oldsmobile (the details of their crime are smartly elided by Seimetz) is admirably committed in its grimy atmosphere of sweat and sun flares, but its frequent insistence upon milking its already high stakes through contrived plot mechanics and oppressive non-diegetic sound grows wearying quickly. The film is much more interesting when it’s quietly studying its two central fuck-ups (played by Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley), and, seriously, quietly is the operative word here; when Seimetz lays out the drama on a bed of ominous drones, complex character psychology is simplified and narrative heaviness takes hold. More effective, but no less predictable, is composer Ben Lovett's music box melodies that emphasize Sheil's character's emotional infantilism (she refers to having kids but is clearly doing a horrible job of raising them).
Sun Don't Shine's standout feature is its intensely claustrophobic Super 16mm handheld camerawork, constantly vibrating along with the vulnerable landscape between the characters. There's no more than a few instances when Seimetz offers any kind of spatial context to Sheil and Audley's jittery interactions; shots that exclude their faces are overtly abstract, as in the images of a golden sun glowing behind trees seen through the window of the rapidly moving car. Accordingly, the Florida landscape becomes a bright blur, simultaneously directing the focus towards the faces of the two leads and rendering the surrounding environment alien and uncertain. That Seimetz has made a film that so confidently limits its scope to a single car, a small number of supplementary locations, and two unstable characters is nothing to scoff at; that she resorts to infidelity and impulsive violence to cheaply bolster the complicated terrain of the central relationship is another thing entirely. Needless to say, the film – which finally and inevitably finds its doomed characters separated and without much hope for the future – leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Christian Petzold's Barbara; while Sun Don't Shine is messy, explosive, and defined by the instability of its central figures, Barbara is restrained and controlled, its characters taking considerable time thinking through the moral implications of their actions. In fact, the titular character (embodied by Nina Hoss), a fiercely independent and no-nonsense rural doctor, seems the polar opposite of Sheil: able to direct her contemplation inward, repressing physical displays of emotion (she spends most of the film outdoing the icy flatness of Charlize Theron), and always aiming for the best, most selfless outcome in any given situation. Driven from her job in East Germany by the oppressive Stasi government because of her desire to move to the West, she is forced to begin working in a country hospital where resources are scarce and patients are few. In between the occasional charged tryst with her East German boyfriend who manages to smuggle himself into her company, Barbara builds a relationship with her co-worker André (Ronald Zehrfeld) that is first businesslike and then strong enough to cause her the predicament of whether to keep working towards escape or to stick around with him in the quiet countryside.
I wasn't a fan of Petzold's previous film, Beats Being Dead, which I found dramatically inert and thematically blunt. Barbara, with its remarkable lead performance and complete tonal control, is the superior achievement, but I still find myself at a remove from Petzold's approach on nearly every level. Both films are set in rural hospitals, therefore limiting their visual palettes to sterile, muted colors and nondescript framings. They often rely heavily on talking heads against blank backgrounds to fuel their emotional and narrative crawl. Obviously, there's nothing problematic about the very fact that Petzold has decided to set these narratives in these milieus – the wonkiness of the hospital, set alongside the power of the police state, is one ideal platform for Petzold's interest in the behavioral impact of social class – but it's the fact that Barbara's atmosphere is as relentlessly cold and inhospitable as it is for the characters that makes it a suffocating watch, never offering a glimpse of a comparative paradise to ground Barbara's desires. It sounds silly to complain about a film consciously evoking the oppressiveness of its period setting, but on a fundamental level I find Barbara's execution bland and its themes of entrapment and repression (which feel very specific to this time and place) difficult to relate to. Seeing it again with a firmer understanding of its political context will likely help.
I finally concluded my festival on a bleak and disturbing note with Joachim Lafosse's Our Children, a film whose perspective balances questionably between detached and weirdly sympathetic. Inspired by a ripped-from-the-headlines story of a mother who killed her four children, Lafosse makes it his alleged goal to remove the tabloid generalizations and paint a portrait of an ordinary woman in peril, but the air of dread looming over the film from its very opening inspires a directorial approach that automatically neglects the possibility of hope or reconciliation at every turn. Lafosse follows a relationship from its pre-marriage ecstasy to the doldrums of increasing routine and obligation, and the inevitable conclusion to this downward slope – revealed in the opening two shots of the film – makes it such that Lafosse's vision of marriage and gender roles appears decidedly bleak. In the midst of this overwhelming decline, the ups and downs in the impressive performance of Émilie Dequenne as the murderous mother are paid rapt attention while Tahar Rahim as her husband grows comparatively distant, even looking villainous as the narrative gets closer and closer to its tragic moment. I take it for granted that this is an attempt to enhance the subjective experience of Dequenne, who feels as though she's being relentlessly blamed and burdened for the maintenance (or lack thereof) of the household, but it puts Lafosse in an uncomfortable moral dilemma, and the clear ambivalence in his approach is manifested in the aforementioned tonal divide.
For at least half of the film, Lafosse's camera, manned with a telephoto lens, is seeking any available surface (a door frame, a head, a pillar) to duck behind and dirty the right or left side of the frame, subsequently pivoting around it throughout scenes to glimpse the space and various characters. It's a stylistic choice that speaks to the directorial confusion throughout: implying a voyeuristic tone that's never actually materialized, this arbitrary use of the camera is not unlike the larger perspective of the film – interested but uncomfortable, aiming for closeness but desiring distance. The net result of this confusion is a disinterested affect and a feeling of low stakes throughout (the sub-Barry Lyndon musical theme that surfaces and resurfaces is perhaps supposed to lend an air of importance missing from the drama itself). Our Children may be heavy material, but it resembles a generic indie drama, and when the key moment finally comes, no measure of chilling restraint in Lafosse's presentation of it can save it from seeming implausible and absurd, an enormous atrocity bubbling out of an otherwise vague marital tension.
It's a bit of a shame to end my week with three films I was less-than-enthusiastic about, but such is the nature of the festival experience. Because of the rapid-fire schedule, once a game plan has been carved out in advance, it's hard to stray from it upon getting new recommendations. I regret not seeing Room 237 (which I had a ticket to, but I needed some fresh air after Leviathan), Tey, War Witch, Ulrich Seidl's Paradise films, A Hijacking, Beyond the Hills (remaining elusive to me, a recurring pattern from Cannes), Simon Killer, and Final Cut, but I also caught what I was most looking forward to. For the list-prone, here's a culminating ranking of the films I saw for the first time at the festival:
1. Berberian Sound Studio (Strickland/Britain)
2. Tabu (Gomes/Portugal)
3. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel/USA)
4. Something in the Air (Assayas/France)
5. Not in Tel Aviv (Geffen/Israel)
6. Barbara (Petzold/Germany)
7. Sun Don't Shine (Seimetz/USA)
8. Our Children (Lafosse/Belgium)