AFI Fest: Gueros, Eden, and Mr. Turner; by Scott Nye
One of the great joys of attending a film festival is seeing something purely because it works out for that time slot, only to have it end up being one of the best you’ve seen all year. I almost didn’t even see Güeros. I’d been up until about 3 A.M. the night before, and was very much still reeling from Inherent Vice when a wrong number woke me up a little before 9:00 on Sunday morning. I could physically make it to Güeros, but I wasn’t sure I could give it that much of a fair shake, and anyway, what could possibly follow up Paul Thomas Anderson’s insane opus?
Well, trudge I did, and rewarded I was.
Güeros opens with a misdirect. A woman hurriedly gets herself together in an effort to escape an abusive lover, unable to quiet her screaming baby as she runs through the house getting dressed, doing her hair, and packing her purse. She makes it out the front door, seems to gather confidence that today will turn out all right after all, only to look up and see a water balloon hurtling towards her and her child.
Cut to black.
When we blink back into consciousness, we’re on the roof, looking down at a puddle of water surrounding the infant. “You hit the baby, man!” one of the young ruffians on the roof says to the other. Tomas, the balloon baron in question, has become too much for his mother to handle, so she sends him off to live with his brother, Federico, in Mexico City. Federico’s a student, but at the moment, his classmates are on strike and have completely occupied the campus. He, however, is “on strike from the strike,” and fills his days playing games with his roommate, Santos, and stealing electricity from their neighbor. It may not seem the most supportive environment for rehabilitating a troubled kid, but somehow, by throwing him into the deep end, Tomas may expunge his reckless spirit.
Director Alonso Ruiz Palacious (who cowrote the screenplay with Gibrán Portela) makes his feature debut here, and isn’t shy about wearing his influences on his sleeve. Shot in full-frame black-and-white, it inhabits the reflective, movie-movie feel of the French New Wave; the characters’ laconic posturing resembles early Jim Jarmusch; and the central plot thread explores the relationship between a boy and his older brother in the vein of Francis Ford Coppola’s black-and-white features. This is one musical number short of having everything that could possibly appeal to me in a film.
Its infectious enthusiasm for the sheer fact of its making carries it a long way, as Palacious tours us through the high society and rougher corners of Mexico’s densest city, heightening the reality just enough to portray it as Tomas sees it. That first encounter with a sense of culture can be like stepping into another dimension, and especially by the time we reach the oft-discussed campus, we quickly sense that Tomas has finally found a home, a way all that restless energy could potentially be channeled one day.
Restless energy also loosely drives Mia Hansen-Løve’s fourth feature, Eden. Like her last film, Goodbye First Love, Eden is an intimate epic. That film looked in on a series of milestones in the life of a young woman from ages 15 to 27, as she learns to let go of the more passionate attachments that one tends to have in those years. Eden pushes that concept, spanning twenty years in the life of Paul (Félix de Givry), who we meet in his late teens as he is just starting to invest himself in his dream career as a DJ. The effect of watching Paul live out the highs and lows of this dream across twenty years is mesmerizing, more ethereal than narrative or thematic. Hansen-Løve doesn’t come to any easy conclusions about what it means to dedicate your life to a single dream, but observes the natural way in which passion tends to dissipate as setbacks, complications, and personal disappointments pile up, and attempts to regain some of what is lost become futile. In its most heartbreaking scene, Paul, in the midst of a panic attack, is unable to communicate in any way the extent of his feeling to his latest girlfriend. It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with her, or with him; she just wasn’t there for everything that lead to this point. But because we were, we ache alongside him.
The highs and lows of the artistic life across a similar span of time is also the central concern of Mike Leigh’s newest film, Mr. Turner. More or less a biopic of the nineteenth-century painter J. M. W. Turner (portrayed here by Timothy Spall), the film assumes none of the shame that genre tag might imply. This is neither the week-in-the-life approach of Capote nor the one-man-in-pursuit-of-a-singular-ideal-across-the-decades we see in The Aviator. Mr. Turner is instead content to drop in on a few key moments that might help us understand the man and his art, without offering up a single one (up to and including his rather epic last words) as any sort of defining statement. Spall is our guide through Turner’s life, but he is not the man’s conduit. He expresses Turner’s own struggle to understand himself, as must we all, through a series of seemingly-contradictory encounters that are simply the product of human nature. What we value most one day may be a trifling concern another. But by showing Turner’s detestable pettiness alongside his moments of triumph – not just artistic, but personal – the result is quite empathetic, gracious, and fundamentally decent, qualities not often at the fore of narrative art but tantamount to their emotional capacities. Beautifully photographed by Dick Pope, we are also given a glimpse of the world as Turner, an artist who depicted nature, might have seen it.
Spall appeared for a brief Q&A session, during which he discussed the film’s long journey to the screen, which began with a chance run-in between he and Leigh, and included two years of painting lessons for the actor while he was still uncertain whether the project would get financed at all.