AFI FEST 2015: Length and Purpose, by Scott Nye
Somewhere in the last ten years, certainly bolstered by the rise of digital cinema, the long take became something of a go-to move for festival films. If you’re really creating a film of serious intent, you’ll hold that shot until someone dies. Push it to the freaking limit, man. This also allowed filmmakers with rather thin premises to stretch them to feature length, if only barely. Suddenly the “slow cinema,” once was the province of bladder-busting masters like Tarkovsky, Tarr, Hou, and Antonioni got packed into a tight 90 minutes. The endurance test was over, but would the art remain?
Michel Franco’s last film, After Lucia, played AFI FEST in 2012, and while I was quite riveted by it, I’ve since been informed by a few cinephiles that that was a terribly unfashionable opinion, and that Franco is quite possibly the worst filmmaker alive. Ouch. So perhaps take it with a grain of salt, hip readers that you are, when I say that his new film, Chronic, is quite a pleasing little yarn, as slow movies about creepy nurses caring for terminal patients go. David, the nurse in question, is played by Tim Roth; he has secrets, but we’ll not discover the extent of them until at least halfway through the film (again – slow cinema stretches thin premises). For now, we know a few things. We know he’s lying to people he meets in the world, adding either tragedy (a dead wife) or elevated importance (he’s an architect) to his introductions; only facts that would improve his standing in their eyes. We know he attends funerals for his patients, but avoids their relatives. And any film that opens with your main character stalking a young woman probably doesn’t have the purest intentions. Franco plays with the expectations such a set-up invites, not merely in a cheap way (though far from me to say cheap tactics aren’t enjoyable), but to invite further considerations into the limitations of anyone’s perspective when David is unfairly punished due to a misunderstanding. We assumed the worst from the start, why should anyone else be any different?
Roth is typically outstanding here. Franco’s long take aesthetic means that he has to have a very clear sense of the physical demands of being a nurse – not just the strength to move people about, but the care in so doing. In each of his professional scenes, David is a rock, a reliable, comforting presence. We get the immediate sense that David very good at his job, connecting with his patients on a personal level, neither invasive nor evasive. This stands in stark contrast, somewhat obviously, to his demeanor outside of work, which is a constant effort to avoid intimacy. It’s almost as though he can only relate to the suffering and dying…
Franco’s clinical approach allows us to at once see the world from David’s eyes – slightly removed, but invested – and approach him with caution. It also allows us to fully appreciate everything Roth is bringing to this role, which is so carefully thought out and beautifully expressed that one hardly needs another reason to see it. Chronic isn’t a monumental achievement, and that fact that it has not yet secured distribution is unfortunate, but expected, but it’s a modest character study that’s truly curious about its subject and world he inhabits. It’s not above playing some games along the way, lending something of a thriller element to what could have easily been a self-satisfied chore.
“Chore” is a word that could be easily applied to the films of Corneliu Porumboiu, whose When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism I spoke of quite skeptically way back in the 2013 AFI FEST wrap-up (it only just came out in America earlier this year, and is now available on Netflix). It has scarcely left my mind since, constantly gnawing away and growing in my memory and esteem. I haven’t revisited it, but I think it’s kind of amazing, so I was very excited to see Porumboiu’s new film, The Treasure. While a quite a bit more didactic than Bucharest, it’s an incisive look at class divisions that’s also a dryly (and I mean dryly) comedic take at fumbling towards wealth.
We meet Costi (Toma Curzin) as he’s reading his young son a bedtime story. He’s a man of modest means, and is unable to help his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcărescu), when he comes around asking for € 800. When his neighbor returns, saying that he needs the money to hire a “metal detector guy” (I hope the native Romanian is as casual and goofy as the English subtitles) to scour an old family property for buried treasure, Costi is a good deal more intrigued. They’ll have some hoops to jump through. They’ll have some shady characters to deal with. And it turns out even a metal detector guy can only give you so much information when the ground is filled with iron, pipes, and other manner of stray metals. But they’re desperate, and they’re determined.
Porumboiu’s long takes follow the investigative mode Franco’s working in, but to more comedic ends. Porumboiu is interested in every awkward pause, every conversational digression, every tiny obsession these people latch onto. Sure, there is a shorter version of this story to be made, but unlike Chronic, it simply would not be the same film. You would not have the metal detector guy gradually cover and re-cover every square foot of the property, his obnoxious machine squealing and squawking over seemingly every part of it. You wouldn’t get Costi shifting uncomfortably as his boss interrogates him for taking time off work to hire the metal detector, a story that sounds implausibly fake when you lay it all out. You wouldn’t get the masochistic pleasure of watching them dig deeper and deeper and deeper into a hole that seems to be yielding nothing. Beyond the amusement, though, Porumboiu’s habit for long takes really brings into stark relief how much labor – mental, emotional, and physical – is required for a task that, on paper, sounds quite simple. I really had a blast with this film.
Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie calls for a sort of labor of its own. It runs two hours, compared to the previous two films’ ninety-ish minutes, and is even less conciliatory. It is not, however, the impossible slog many had made it out to be in its prior festival appearances. Billed as a documentary about her mother’s death, it is much more a film about their lives, and the extent to which we’re capable of sharing our lives with our parents into adulthood. Made over the course of several years and culled from dozens of hours of footage Akerman shot with no real intent, No Home Movie traces conversations she has with her mother, Natalia, over Skype and in person. A few are very pointed, recalling family history and specific ways they’ve grown over the years. Some are completely superficial, about the weather and so forth. A surprising number are very funny; perhaps it’s not major praise to say I laughed more during this than most other films at an international film festival, but the experience of watching this was so much more joyful and life-affirming than I expected.
And then, suddenly, there isn’t a lot of joy to be had. Natalia starts to get sick. Her once-irrepressible personality in subdued as she spends her days lying down. Other rifts grow – Chantal’s younger sister, Sylviane, arrives and finds a good many avenues to mock Chantal and give voice to a different side of Natalia, who feels her eldest daughter doesn’t share the most important things in her life. This seems to stand in contrast to what we’ve seen in their relationship to this point. Chantal seems so open, so caring. Is it just a matter of the footage she selected? But if she was trying to paint herself only in the best light, why include this bit of footage between Natalia and Sylviane at all? Even the documentary has its limits. As with her most famous fiction work – most notably Jeanne Dielman – Akerman chooses her camera positions to maximize what goes unseen. We’ll see an empty room for the better side of a minute before someone will walk through. A conversation will be filmed from behind one person, obscuring both parties.
This creates close ties between the audience and these spaces. We start to notice how old Natalia’s furniture is, wondering how long her apartment has remained unchanged. We notice how modest her kitchen area is, but how many more meals and talks with her daughter are carried out there, rather than the more spacious dining room or the more comfortable living room. The latter we barely see until Natalia is more or less resigned (confined?) to her easy chair. The spaces take on different meanings and importance in accordance with wellness. We don’t see things get really bad for Natalia physically, but purely through the visual construction of the film, we feel the immensity of Chantal’s loss. A drive through the desert becomes a way to mark the passage of time, and possibly of the soul. And then we’re back in the apartment, now so empty, and so lonely.
It wasn’t particularly easy or desirable to see more films after No Home Movie. It’s not the sort of film one should see in the early afternoon, but rather at night, when a long walk can allow this incredible film to churn around. But the good films, the really good films, will find a way to burrow into your consciousness regardless of circumstance. And this one has. Admittedly, it is impossible to view it apart from the tremendous loss so many of us felt when Chantal herself died in early October. Who would want to? This is as personal as filmmaking gets, from a filmmaker who so consistently marched so far from the beat of anyone else’s drum. I can’t believe that’s over; I rejoice that she gave us this.
AFI FEST 2015 Presented by Audi ran from November 5th to November 12th. Chronic currently has no distribution deal in the United States. The Treasure will be released next year by Sundance Selects and IFC Films. No Home Movie will be released next year by Icarus Films, alongside the documentary I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman.