AFI Fest 2013: Trapped, by Scott Nye
Confining a film to a single house is both sort of an attention-grabbing premise – “look at all we can do with just this one location!” – and something of a cost-saving measure. Between the filmmaker and everyone else involved, it’s pretty easy to come up with an apartment and then throw some actors in it without much concern towards the overall shape of the thing. In fact, no less than four films playing at AFI Fest took this single-location premise. Not all were entirely successful in their gambit, but each one demonstrated just how malleable one could make such seemingly confined quarters.
Perhaps no film better exemplified this than the one that was also perhaps my favorite film of the entire festival – Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat. The film first caught my eye as Zürcher conceived it during a seminar with Belá Tarr, who, since his retirement, has moved into teaching a new generation of filmmakers. The Strange Little Cat has little in common with Tarr’s work, aside from both using recurring pieces of classical music. Zücher has instead earned comparisons, far from unearned, to filmmakers as diverse as Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, and Chantel Akerman. Something of the sonic tactics from Tati, the performance style of Bresson, and the stripped-down, location-centric work of Akerman floods the film, yet it’d be hard to pin down Zücher’s influence to any one thing (for me, it sometimes felt like a feature-length version of the finale of Resnais’ Wild Grass), or even say for sure that such artists truly had any effect at all. More than anything I saw during the festival, Zücher’s was by far the freshest, most exciting voice.
Ostensibly a day-in-the-life portrait of a family as it gathers together for an evening meal (two kids back from school, two still under the roof, and a grandmother who naps more often than not), Zücher (who also wrote the screenplay) buries even the most basic exposition down below a thousand points of minutia, introducing us to characters well in advance of their eventual onscreen arrival. Relationships have to be parsed out based on statements made before you even knew about whom they were speaking. Details such as an obese neighbor, whom we never see, whose groceries must be pulled up from the street, are abundant and absolutely clear, but who these people are to each other, considerably less so. Perhaps it is this persistent mystery that keeps the film so compelling. Perhaps it is the flurry of superfluous information, the kind of stuff that ends up dominating our own thoughts – vomit that needs cleaning, a bothersome rodent in the street, hair in the milk, a loose button, a broken washing machine – that Zücher continually piles on, forever moving the story along in inventive ways even if the thing that seems to be the actual plot of the film is rarely addressed.
One talent Züchar does share with all the previously-mentioned renowned auteurs is an absolute mastery of framing and movement. As more and more people enter the family’s tiny apartment, so too must they casually adapt to the increasingly-limited space, culminating in a beautifully balletic shot that, even without the music underscoring it (the recurring piece of classical music is “Pulchritude” by Thee More Shallows), is a deeply moving expression of…something. It’s a hard film to parse out, thematically, and while I typically respond to films with robust, bold thoughts and ideas, this is the rare one that seems to be about as close to art for art’s sake as the cinema might offer. You could say it touches on middle-class ennui or the almost reflexive way families interact – some mixture of bitter and loving – that’s underscored by the manner in which they move around each other. Even when the light goes out (one of the film’s great gags that’s intensely foreshadowed and yet a complete surprise), they cross the room as though predetermined. The family is representative of the ideal “single unit,” knowing each other so well that such things are possible.
And yet none of that is what I found touching about the experience of watching the film, one in which I was so wrapped up that I immediately restarted it the second it finished (its 70-minute running time also eased that). It was, above all, Zücher’s inventiveness, his willingness to go for jokes alternatingly weird (a little girl emitting a persistent high-pitched scream as she flies her toy helicopter about the house) and subtle (a grandmother who’s constantly spoken of as though she’s old and frail, yet, when introduced, looks quite healthy and youthful), and a persistent tone of, shall we say, malevolent whimsy, made this an incredibly satisfying experience.
Congratulations! and Closed Curtain also moved about unencumbered by plot or, even more so than The Strange Little Cat, any sense of remaining beholden to reality, and yet somehow, the more esoteric and bizarre each became, the more normative they ultimately felt. Congratulations!, written and directed by Mike Brune, is sort of a mix of Airplane! and Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, about a police detective (John Curran) looking for a missing boy who so embeds himself within the case that he starts living with the family. The surreal specificity with which the detective and his squad investigate the boy’s disappearance is the driving force for much of it. In one of the better, and most representative, jokes, one cop starts distributing photos of the boy’s changing appearance, but, since he’s only been missing a few days, it’s just the same photo they’ve been using all along. The production design is also exquisite, far more considered than most films of its size, sort of exploding the inner absurdity of the core. Curran nicely expresses the film’s comedic side, and gets at a bit of the aching desperation that’s at the emotional core, but as with the film as a whole, there’s not enough commitment to grab hold of what they have, which, coupled with the overall feeling that the film has that sort of treading-water/extended-short-film sort of feel, makes it an interesting, often quite funny, if not terribly successful, first feature.
Closed Curtain suffers similarly, but first, some background – in 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested for, essentially, making films that the Iranian government felt painted the country in a bad light. Since then, he has been under house arrest and banned from making films for the next twenty years, though, including this one, he has already made two. Closed Curtain finds him ruminating on the fact of captivity, made explicitly clear in the opening shot of bars over his window (the film was reportedly shot in his house). The film goes on to follow an unnamed writer (Kambozia Partovi) who has smuggled a dog into his home to rescue it from a government increasingly seeking to remove dogs from Iranian streets (this is really happening, by the way), and for the first half, as the writer struggles with his status as a criminal in hiding, is incredibly strong cinema, as good as anything I’ve seen this year. Not only does Panahi find the perfect expression for his own situation, but he taps into universal fears of basic rights being retracted and an almost Polanskian sense of dread and tension as unseen forces bear down on the writer.
Sadly, Panahi slowly abandons the writer in favor of something at once more surreal and almost documentarian. Where he had already created a tone in which he could do almost anything, he abandons the very core of his idea, letting the specifics of the injustice wrought against him overwhelm the larger injustice he had previously sought to address. The second half of the film is not a complete loss, as he finds increasingly wild uses for the seemingly rigid location, but he loses so much of the urgency he once grasped so completely. Perhaps even worse, he doesn’t show the dog as much, who had been giving a rather incredible performance himself.
Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition finds the same sort of diverse ways of using a single space (though it does take brief trips outside), both in adapting the rooms of a house – sliding doors change the dimensions, moving furniture changes the way we perceive those dimensions – and how one lives within it. The opening shot features D (Viv Albertine) laying directly against a floor-to-ceiling window; late in the film, a montage will find her wrapping her body around corners, under tables, and laying on furniture in odd positions. Their neighbor, a Barrister, remarks that he’d love to live in their home, but acknowledges that it’s not made for a family such as his. “It’s an artist’s home,” and indeed D and H (Liam Gillick) put it to perfect use as that, though the film begins with them taking the preliminary steps towards selling it. Why they’re selling or where they plan to go afterwards is not revealed. Nor is a whole lot else. Exhibition could be said to be an even-more-modernist cousin to Antonioni’s landmark work of the 1960s, and all it inspired, in the way it takes a collection of seemingly banal interactions and weaves some genuine feeling (or at least the “traces of feeling” Antonioni was looking for) through them, but all its searching, questioning, and uncertainty only winds up at a suggestion even more banal than any conversation we had yet seen.
To her great credit, Hogg is unafraid to give us two characters who fit quite well into unflattering portraits of men and women once they reach a certain age (Albertine is in her late 50s, Gillick his late 40s). H is becoming increasingly volatile over totally inconsequential conflicts (a worker briefly using his parking spot causes him to threaten to build a gigantic fence that says “Fuck Off”), while D avoids sex and most genuine confrontation. She’s a bundle of impulsive, destructive tendencies that aren’t always comfortable to watch, but are so authentic in their immediacy and Albertine’s expression of them. Whether hosting a dinner party or totally isolated in her studio room, she never quite seems at peace; Hogg repeatedly returns to her trying to balance perfectly on a tilted chair in a variety of poses and costumes, which seems about as direct a metaphor as one could craft.
Albertine has a rather unprecious approach to these scenes of herself in isolation, embracing the frequent nudity and unafraid to contort her body all kinds of ways, in the name of her own art and that of her character. It is unfortunate that her ultimate resolution is so simplistic and straightforward; I suppose one could ask how long such satisfaction could last, but that’d be doing the film’s work for it. Hogg is already pushing the limits of patience in refusing to craft even a single whole scene (one could call this Moments From a Marriage); to ask an audience to add more doubt at the very moment when she seems to have cut it off is too much.