European Union Film Festival 2015: Part Two, by Aaron Pinkston
Life of Riley, dir. Alain Resnais (France)
A few years back at the European Union Film Festival, Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet was being publicized as the last film from the great auteur. Thankfully, Resnais was able to complete one more film before his death last March. With You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, the filmmaker showed to be on top of his game with one of the best films of the year. While The Life of Riley doesn’t have quite the same vigor as its predecessor, it is a fine and fitting cap to a long, brilliant career. The two films could also work as a very enjoyable double feature, two different styles of theater on screen.
With Life of Riley, Resnais seems to have taken on the challenge of presenting theater in as pure a form as possible while still making the film cinematic. Based on Alan Ayckbourn’s play, the film is set in Yorkshire, England (though all the characters speak French for some reason…) and revolves around six characters and their associations with their friend George Riley. The film is structured in long dialogue scenes between 2-3 characters, just as a play might be, rotating between four main sets marked by inserted drawings to help us locate each.
The sets are simply extraordinary and by far the best thing about the film. They are obviously artificial, with fake foliage and buildings, keeping with the theater influence. Each of the four sets are exteriors, patio areas outside of the characters’ homes, which allows for a sparseness that can be both striking and practical. The most interesting feature of the set designs are long, colorful curtains that replace exterior walls and doorways – it’s a nice avant-garde touch that really calls to a theatrical setting that needs to be mobile and cheap. Building or using actual houses would work just as well, but would totally lose this effect. These settings are shot by Resnais and cinematographer Dominique Bouilleret mostly in long and medium shots, with all actors present in the scene visible in the frame.
Setting the stage in this way, the small cinematic choices Renais employs are magnified in a beautiful way. Though the frame is typically constructed in long and medium shots, the camera is lively. It isn’t exactly dynamic, doesn’t swirl around the environment, but even its more subtle movements build great energy. When Resnais decides to go in for a close-up, the set is replaced by a black-and-white design around the actor. With only the character’s face and words to focus on, these moments really pop, visually and narratively. By only using this technique during the most important or emotional speeches in the film, they increase their impact. Whenever one would come, I would perk up a bit, making sure I was paying more attention to every word. The choice is a little out there, completely away from the otherwise theatrical presentation, but effective.
The film’s major game is building this George Riley character without actually showing him – we learn through his on-screen friends that Riley has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and so decides to go on a final vacation. This leads to bickering and posturing between the friends, especially three women who each wish to spurn their lovers for one last chance with Riley. Having essentially your main character never appear in the film is an interesting idea, but a difficult one to fully pull off. There is an inherent theme here being Resnais’s last film, perhaps seeing himself as Riley. Not only would Resnais obviously have an interest in the themes of dying, but as a filmmaker doesn’t typically appear in a film, he could be making that connection, as well. Perhaps Resnais saw Life of Riley as his own final vacation before death.
Ultimately, Life of Riley is a unique visual experiment that isn’t quite much more than one. The narrative touches on a few interesting themes, but I was always more interested in the film’s look. The plot simply doesn’t have the same level of vibrancy as how it is delivered – at times it felt reserved and uneventful. Resnais purists won’t be disappointed, especially considering so many great auteurs whose careers end in such hard times. Resnais never lost his wonderful visual wit or experimentive personality. Life of Riley is a testament to that.
The Great Museum, dir. Johannes Holzhausen (Austria)
Last year I saw my first Frederick Wiseman film, National Gallery. The all-encompassing backstage look at England’s art museum really didn’t do much for me. I considered that maybe Wiseman’s cinema verite approach to documentary has merit but just isn’t exciting. And then I saw At Berkeley, which was totally engrossing, and realized that it’s probably not the style, but the subject matter that really makes a Wiseman film work. Maybe I’m just a philistine, but I’ve never had that much interest in fine art museums. Johannes Holzhausen’s The Great Museum is more or less a Wiseman clone, so it is difficult not to judge it without thinking of Wiseman, though there are a few notable differences. The Great Museum is a little less restricted than National Gallery and, overall, a more enjoyable experience.
Like National Gallery (and Wiseman’s approach in general), The Great Museum is less about getting a great museum experience on film and more about the full ecosystem that makes it all run. The film presents many of the same types of activities: technicians handling and cleaning pieces of artwork, administrators taking part in financial meetings, a new exhibit being painstakingly curated, etc. I hadn’t previously heard of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, but it is apparently a big deal. Holzhausen’s approach, though not a walk-through, does showcase the types of work that can be seen there, from fine paintings to anthropological curiosities. Still, the film isn’t much of a substitute to buying a ticket for the real thing, and often seems more like a backstage “making of” supplement to its great admirers.
Overall, The Great Museum is much less thorough than the other recent great museum documentary. The various meetings and conversations we are able to peek in on don’t run for 20-30 minutes, instead taking liberty in not needing to be absolutely complete. The most practical result is that the film is a brisk 94 minutes (compared to 180 minutes of National Gallery). I can’t honestly say that the much shorter runtime isn’t the biggest factor in my enjoyment of the film.
Stylistically, though, Holzhausen uses a much freer camera, takes more risks in the way the film is shot. For example, one particular shot shows an unidentified employee using a Razor scooter to get from his desk to collect a print out from a copy machine obscenely far away in this massive building. The camera follows him with the same flow, zooming through library stacks and zipping around corners. This ride doesn’t contribute any great insight into the workings of the Kunsthistorisches Museum – it is a standalone moment without any larger context. More importantly, it is an indication of the filmmaker’s more carefree attitude.
The final thing that The Great Museum did that really worked for me was a simple choice in the closing credits. It may not have been completely intended to do so, but the decision to show a brief clip from the film for each of the people profiled in any significant way really crystallized the film’s major theme for me. As the film really isn’t a tour of the museum, but a profile of its inner workings, with equal room paid for every type of employee behind the scenes, this really visualized the part that every member of this family has in the success of this much larger concept. It becomes a supplement to a bit of dialogue from the film, where, during some sort of meeting, an employee in member services expresses frustration over not properly knowing others in different departments. Anyone who has worked in a large office setting has probably had this same thought, and in a strange way, The Great Museum’s biggest accomplishment is realizing this theme in this way.
Field of Dogs, dir. Lech Majewski (Poland)
Adapted from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Field of Dogs is a gloomy, surreal exploration of death and loss. Lech Majewski’s follow up to The Mill and the Cross is a completely different experience, but still as visually expressive and impressive. Though its not as inherent in the storytelling as his previous film, Majewski remains a master of composition. Even while the narrative is under-developed and the tone may turn off some viewers, the many striking images in Field of Dogs make this an amazing adventure.
In the film, a talented poet and literature professor struggles to put his life back together after the tragic death of his girlfriend, for which he may be responsible. He takes on a job as a supermarket checkout clerk but is too affected to focus on anything. This outside narrative is the frame for the real meat of the film: Adam’s troubling dreams. Each of these sequences are memorable, not just beautiful but provocative, sometimes frightening and loaded with symbolism. They build the psychosis of our protagonist, though not so literally defined. Adam’s real life and visions become blurred together.
Supplementing this, the film’s world feels like a warning of the upcoming apocalypse. Field of Dogs uses real-life national disasters as a backdrop, shown along with the Adam’s troubled state to create its bleak atmosphere. We hear of a massive flood that has caused many in the southern regions of Poland to become displaced. We are shown the Icelandic volcano eruption that has stretched black soot across Europe and the frightful scene of plane wreckage that killed the Polish president and many key officials. In the film’s most explicitly philosophical scene, Adam’s aunt talks about death as something that is constantly occurring, that each day we lose something of ourselves. Maybe the Earth has the same fate and has become locked together with Adam’s suffering. The real world seems to be imitating this dream world – or, as Adam is almost constantly watching and listening to the news, perhaps these horrific real-world tragedies are sparking his imaginative unconscious state.
Field of Dogs is a difficult film, but not a totally demanding one. It is much more emotionally charged than intellectual, with its striking images and dream sequences generating a tone that hits on the gut level first and foremost. I imagine that it is very interesting to read as an adaptation of The Divine Comedy, which is a work with which I am sorely unfamiliar. I didn’t feel lost in the plot, which truthfully is fairly non-existent, but I’m curious how much it takes from Dante. The film’s assured tone and creative imagery makes me think the modern update adaptation deserves some credit.
Majewski’s credit of “written, directed and designed by” tells you exactly how much pride he took in the look of the film and it shows in the product. The filmmaker is also credited as producer, director of photography (along with Pawel Tybora), sound designer and mixer – and according to IMDb, he also edited the film under a staged name. This is quite obviously the work of single author, one whose control over the film’s production mirrors the controlled look and tone of the film. Only between The Mill and the Cross and Field of Dogs, Majewski is clearly a film artist who doesn’t sacrifice on his bold vision. I hope that Field of Dogs eventually gets the arthouse attention of his previous work, perhaps with an added bump from the smart genre community.