There’s Plenty to Discover Within the Film Comment Selects Series
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects Series runs from February 17 – 24 in New York City. Two of our writers, C.J. Prince and Michael Nazarewycz, got to preview some of the films playing in the series. First up is C.J., who took a look at some of the new films playing in this year’s series.
C.J.: If you’re a die-hard cinephile, you should already know about New York City’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. With plenty of series and festivals every year like New Directors/New Films and the New York Film Festival, FSLC combines mainstream, classic and experimental cinema into one big, unending celebration of great filmmaking.
So when Film Comment, the official publication of the Lincoln Center, put together their 16th edition of the Film Comment Selects series, we wanted to see what they had to offer. Gathering a mix of new works hot off the festival circuit and older, underseen titles, the series unites through themes of discovery and rediscovery.
Opening the series is Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, which had its World Premiere last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. A passion project for Davies, the film is an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel about young Scottish farm girl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) as she tries to find independence and happiness in the early 1900s. For some reason Davies doesn’t get a lot of respect from the major fests (rumor has it that this film, along with the underrated The Deep Blue Sea, were flat out rejected by both Cannes and Venice), which seems baffling considering this is the same man behind The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives. Sunset Song doesn’t reach the same highs as those two films, keeping its focus on the source material’s sweeping narrative rather than providing the kinds of sublime moments Davies specializes in, but the film has a cumulative strength that’s undeniable. It’s less of a character study and more of a representation of how desires and ambitions can fall victim to forces beyond our control, whether it’s abusive family members (a subject Davies knows how to portray better than anyone else) or a war breaking out. It’s a reminder of how we can only define ourselves to a certain degree, and Davies expresses this message with just the right amount of humility and grace.
Even if one can’t go along with Davies’ style in Sunset Song, there’s still an earnestness with his approach that’s admirable. I can’t say the same for Benoit Jacquot’s The Diary of a Chambermaid, a piece of French prestige that sleepwalks through its adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel. This is the third time Mirbeau’s story has been translated to the screen, with Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel making their own versions in the past, and despite having seen neither of those versions (something I’m not proud of), Jacquot’s adaptation still feels pointless. Léa Seydoux plays Celestine, a chambermaid who gets hired on at a house in the French countryside. She’s a smart, beautiful woman who knows it, spending most of her time bitterly lamenting both her job and social status. Seydoux continues to show why she’s become such a revered actress in a short time, and Clotilde Mollet gives a great performance as her cruel master, but the screenplay is a total mess. Flashbacks to Celestine’s previous jobs attempt to flesh out her character when it actually paints her as erratic, veering between sensitive caretaker (in a strange sequence with other up-and-coming French actor Vincent Lacoste) and resentful grump. These sorts of sudden, inexplicable shifts happen across the film, with the most baffling one being Celestine’s crush on her brooding, anti-Semitic co-worker (Vincent Lindon). With Jacquot making no effort to provide any sense of coherency, it’s hard to give a single shit about Diary of a Chambermaid’s narrative. The abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion feels more like everyone just gave up, preferring to go take a nap rather than try and make an actual ending.
From one French “It Girl” to another, Philippe Grandrieux’s Malgré la Nuit (the English title is Despite the Night, but I prefer the original) stars Ariane Labed, who co-starred with Seydoux in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Possibly the most extreme film in this year’s line-up, Grandrieux takes a look at extreme emotions through two people living in Paris: Lenz (Kristian Marr), returning from England to look for a woman named Madeleine, and Hélène (Labed), a nurse who strikes up an intense relationship with Lenz during his search. Beyond its disturbing subject matter (involving an underground club specializing in sex, torture and murder), Malgré la nuit gets under the skin through its strange formal choices, whether it’s shrouding scenes in darkness—most exchanges look like they’re happening in an underground cavern rather than a room—or shooting close-ups with artificial lights that turn faces into overexposed blobs of light. Grandrieux operates through cinema’s ability to portray subjectivity and emotions rather than its ability to tell a story, so while the narrative may be flimsy, it takes a backseat to the film’s ability to provide a visceral knockout to the senses.
Of course, this being FSLC, the series wouldn’t be complete without some titles that will leave viewers completely baffled. Take, for example, Marco Bellochio’s Blood of my Blood, which premiered at Venice and Toronto last year to a small yet vocal chorus of raves. It starts in the 17th century with Federico (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) arriving at the convent his priest brother resided at before killing himself. His brother had an affair with the nun Sister Benedetta (Lidiya Liberman), and in order to ensure his brother gets a proper burial, he must help prove that Benedetta is influenced by Satan (since that would prove that the suicide was an involuntary act and not a sin). This is all well and good until Bellochio abruptly ends this story halfway through, flashing forward to the same convent in present day where an old man named Count Basta (Roberto Herlitzka) resides. And oh yeah, Count Basta might be a vampire. How do these two storylines link together? It’s a question I can’t really answer after one viewing, and I’m sure most people will find themselves in the same boat. It’s a bemusing experience, although not everyone will feel like it’s worth the effort to try and understand what exactly might be going on in Bellochio’s head.
But, at the very least, I can say something about Bellochio’s film. Trying to talk about Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos is something that eludes me, and I’ll be perfectly fine admitting that a large amount of it probably went over my head. Adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s novel, the film is Żuławski’s first feature film in over 15 years, and from frame one it feels like he’s unleashing all the pent-up strangeness he’s been accumulating over the years. Law student Witold (Jonathan Genet) escapes to a guest house where he befriends fellow guest Fuchs (Johan Libereau) and falls for the owner’s daughter (Victoria Guerra). At the same time, Witold’s discovery of a block of wood and a dead sparrow, both strung up by wire near the property, inspires him and Fuchs to figure out who’s responsible. All I can say about Cosmos is that it’s just one weird experience that, no matter how maddening it may get, never slows down for a second. It’s just unfortunate that Żuławski’s quirks start paying off far too late into the picture, with a final act and ending(s) that inspire laughter just by its sheer audacity. Fans of Possession, Żuławski’s cult classic, should not expect anything similar here, even though both films could be classified as unforgettable whatsits.
There are plenty more intriguing titles from recent years playing the series that I wish I could have gotten to see, like the essay Notfilm, a look into the making of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton’s avant-garde short Film (which screens with Notfilm). Also playing are Venice prize winner No One’s Child, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s 2015 Cannes competition entry Our Little Sister, Aleksei German Jr.’s Under Electric Clouds, and the US premiere of 2012 Iranian film The Paternal House. But Film Comment has much more going on than a showcase of recent festival fare. Michael Nazarewycz took a peek at some of the archival titles playing this year, starting with Ray Davies’ Return to Waterloo.
Michael: The Kinks, formed in 1963 by brothers Ray and Dave Davies, were a British rock band that had critical success early (1964’s You Really Got Me) and late (1983’s Come Dancing) in their musical careers. On the heels of the success of Come Dancing, with its music video rich in bittersweet themes of melancholy and regret, Ray Davies clearly had more to get off his chest creatively and thematically. He did so, partially at the expense of an already strained relationship with his brother Dave, by focusing his artistic attention on directing a musical film. The result, along with an accompanying soundtrack of mostly new music written by Ray, was 1984’s Return to Waterloo.
In the film, veteran British character actor Kenneth Colley plays a man simply known as The Traveller. The Traveller is an otherwise unassuming businessman…until it’s revealed he might be a wanted serial rapist. He follows a blonde into the tube and, as he takes his train ride, his mind harkens to many different things, including thoughts of his recently-estranged daughter and his disenchanted wife, as well as his opinions of present-day youth and memories of a more promising career in his younger days.
Return to Waterloo marks the cinematic debut of writer/director Ray Davies and, with the exception of a few subsequent documentaries, it’s his only filmmaking effort. That’s a shame. Davies’ musical drama, while not perfect, is a wonderful blend of melancholy, music, and mystery, and it proves that the musician had greater artistic scope than just penning and recording hit records. His approach is bold; rather than create a linear narrative and tell a traditional story, Davies plays fast and loose with The Traveller’s timeline and his sense of reality. The character clearly exists in the now, but as he encounters people in his travels, those people trigger thoughts and images that slip in and out of reality, dancing a line between things that happened in the past and things he imagines are happening now. The creative approach, which ultimately relies on the viewer to do some heavier-than-usual lifting, works more often than it doesn’t, and at a lean and energetic 58 minutes, it’s a great time. Tthe film also marks the second onscreen appearance of a young Tim Roth, as well as an early entry in the career of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Film Comment has also chosen to screen a pair of Charles Bronson films at their Selects festival. Bronson, who began acting in the early 1950s, appeared in a collection of films that would go on to become classics, including John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. In the 1970s, Bronson rocketed to superstardom, anchored by a star turn in Michael Winner’s vigilante classic Death Wish. Late in his career, Bronson was one of the biggest stars in the Cannon Films stable, appearing in a collection of ’80s action flicks for the notorious production company. But hidden among these famous films are two lesser-known entries from the action legend.
First is Tom Gries’ Breakout, from 1975. In the film, Robert Duvall plays Jay Wagner, a man wrongly imprisoned in Mexico for a murder he didn’t commit. The murder and incarceration were orchestrated by Wagner’s corrupt grandfather-in-law (played by John Huston). Wagner’s wife, played by frequent Bronson co-star and real-life spouse Jill Ireland, hires bush pilot Nick Colton (Bronson) to break her husband out of jail. Action ensues.
As a film, Breakout isn’t very good. While it allows Bronson to be a little less serious than the brooding characters he’s better known for, the plot is an utter mess and the rescue attempts (there are several) are nothing more than a string of haplessly assembled action pieces that only serve to illustrate what a terrible rescuer Colton is (as is his sidekick of sorts, played by Randy Quaid). Still, the film is notable and worth checking out for a couple of things. It’s loosely based on the book The 10-Second Jailbreak, which itself is based on actual events. The film is part of the Bronson canon, and one not usually mentioned in the same breath as the others, so Bronson completists should rejoice. It has quite a cast, as well as quite the producing team in Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, the Oscar-winners behind the entire Rocky franchise (including 2015’s Creed). Most interestingly, though, Breakout is one of the titles bandied about when there are discussions about the “first summer blockbuster.” While Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is widely regarded to hold that distinction because of its wide release and its success, other films, including this one, had wide releases just as big.
The other Bronson film selected by Film Comment is an excellent choice, one that is part of the overlooked European portion of the actor’s career. Starting with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and ending with his return to the US as the star of The Mechanic, Bronson made about a dozen films in Europe including the 1970 film Rider on the Rain, which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. The French film is a sleek, slick Hitchcockian thriller, although the name of its femme fatale is more Bond than Hitch: Mélancolie Mau.
Played by Marlène Jobert, Mélancolie is a lonely woman in a loveless marriage living in a lifeless seaside town. One day, while her husband is somewhere else in the world in his role as an airline pilot (and philanderer), a creepy-looking man (Marc Mazza) with a red bag gets off a bus. The man makes incidental eye contact with Mélancolie. Later that day, when she is trying on clothes in a shop, the stranger leers at her through the outside window as she stands exposed in her underwear and stockings. That night, the stranger breaks into her home and rapes her. He doesn’t leave. Before he can repeat his act, there is a struggle that eventually affords Mélancolie the opportunity to shoot and kill him, but rather than report it to police, she dumps the body into the sea and keeps the incident a secret.
The next day at a wedding, Mélancolie meets American Harry Dobbs (Bronson), a man who not only knows what she did but knows a lot of the circumstances surrounding it. Still, despite his prodding, she refuses to confess to her actions, and what follows is a tingling game of cat-and-mouse that showcases Mélancolie’s resolve and Dobbs’s downright misogyny. Of course things devolve from there.
Director René Clément certainly gets his Hitchcock on for this film. While Mélancolie is not your typical Hitchcock blonde, the redhead is no less icy and no less mysterious. Of questionable character, too, is Dobbs, whose knowledge of the facts and pursuit of the truth suggest hero, but whose methods suggest anti-hero at best. A beautiful resort, sexual energy to spare, and a slowly unraveling mystery make Rider on the Rain a compelling and, at times, unsettling watch in ways reminiscent of Hitchcock, but perhaps with more dazzling visuals and brutal realism (the rape scene is harrowing). Jobert is truly the star of the picture, but Bronson is excellent, with his perpetual cat-who-ate-the-canary grin beneath his signature mustache. The two couldn’t be more different than each other, yet their onscreen chemistry is excellent.
In addition to these fun catalogue titles, Film Comment’s lineup boasts several other classics, including a trio of films from Andrzej Żuławski to accompany Cosmos. That trio consists of a pair of 1972 horror films, The Devil and The Third Part of the Night, and the 1988 sci-fi/fantasy On the Silver Globe. Closing night offers a Chantal Akerman tribute with the screening of her 1986 musical Golden Eighties.