Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jauja (2014) A Film by Lisandro Alonso

Whereas Lisandro Alonso’s last two films were marked by their almost obsessive linearity, respecting in terms of screen direction the resolute trajectories of their cryptic protagonists, Jauja’s shell-shocked conquistador (Viggo Mortensen) ambles like eyes across a loaded Scrabble board. He tracks inward across the frame, cuts out to its furthest boundaries, darts left and right, picks one direction before choosing, mid-shot, to realign. That his arbitrarily-arrived-at final destination is a rock-strewn overcast vista to sharply contrast the sun-dappled, tall-grass desert that commands the film’s first half has little to do with factual geography and more to do with Mortensen’s increasingly desperate, stupefied headspace. Two things are new here in Alonso's unyielding world: a leading lonely man with palpable emotions and motivations made clear to the audience rather than willfully obfuscated, and a willingness to allow the environment to assume the interior dimensions of this character.

Filling in for Los Muertos’ last-second dropped action figure and Liverpool’s Rosebud-esque locket keepsake is a nutcracker figurine Mortensen finds on the ground and carries with him in his travels—the third straight mundane, mass-produced object to shoulder vaguely magical energy (and, in the recent two, sentimental value) in Alonso’s films. Meaningless on their own, these trinkets appear to hold significance for the characters wielding them, functioning as portals to some alternate emotional reality—Nostalgia? Anguish? Tragedy? Bliss?—that usually goes unseen and buried beneath a stoic façade, but which finally finds diegetic representation in Jauja. It’s telling that the film’s shift into the straight-up surreal and associative (as opposed to the merely narcotized—the dreamy space in which the bulk of its narrative dwells) occurs when Mortensen’s psychological profile is at its clearest. Never quite wearing some Dumontian deadpan, he reacts, like any normal person would, with reflexive rage at an indigenous horseman firing a gun at him, or with fatigue and distress as the days wear on in his search for his daughter. Jauja presents colonial man as assertive and impulsive, yet still haunted by refracted daydreams that are complex in their specificity but outside the grip of his logical mind.

Comparisons to Ford and Bresson—rampant since the film’s premiere in May—feel pretty immaterial in relation to the actual film. It’s absurd that anyone’s suggesting Ford has ownership of the compositional likelihood of bisecting land and sky evenly across the frame, a pictorial mark of American westerns in general (honestly, I thought more of Allan Dwan’s westerns but wouldn’t think of entertaining this particular kinship further). On the other hand, Bresson’s name has followed Alonso throughout his career, but never has it seemed less appropriate than here, where the Argentinian director is allowing plenty of space for his star to craft his own spontaneous screen persona, not to mention composing dimensionally layered shots that contrast the flatness of Bresson’s mise-en-scène. Name-dropping these iconic directors in relation to Jauja—a gesture of foolhardy auteur worship—is a route around discussing Alonso’s strange film head-on.

At the risk of making a hypocrite of myself, a more fruitful touch point for Jauja would be the unpredictable figure eights of montage and narrative present in the work of Carlos Reygadas. The clairvoyant cave woman Mortensen meets on his path—so overly costumed as to edge into kitsch—would not seem out of place in Post Tenebras Lux insofar as she marks a representational leap that goes wholly unwarned, and closing shifts into a separate dramatic space share a temporal bewilderment (are we in the past, the future, or some imagined realm?) that’s key to Reygadas’ 2012 Rorschach test. Alonso was exceedingly chipper and jokey at Harvard's Q&A, a hard left turn from the somber cloud he seemed to drag in from Argentina last time he graced the Archive’s floors. He came across like a guy happily in embrace of inarticulable impulse, repeatedly asking the audience questions as if hoping to relinquish his creation to a crowd of people—a standard move for a contemporary international arthouse director wishing to preserve the ambiguity of his work in stone. But Alonso’s openness had nothing of a trendy air about it, instead bespeaking a man proud of his having worked so close to the gut with such pleasingly ungraspable results. It’s a cliché to say Jauja possesses the indescribably quality of a dream—the kind that can be recapped yet remains impossible to adequately unpack—but it’s a fitting compliment nevertheless. Rationally, I’m not sold on where the film ends up, but sometimes it’s best to let ambiguities linger when the cumulative affect is this overwhelming.

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