AFI FEST 2015: No Rules, Just Right, by Scott Nye
I’ve always been grateful that AFI FEST comes when it does. Though any number of top-flight “dramas for adults” come out in October, November, and December, the uniformity of their style, content, and aims can become dulling to the senses. Though spring and summer may be considered the realm of the genre picture (of varying scales) in the Hollywood market, to wander slightly off the beaten path is to discover films of remarkably diverse expression from all over the world trying to grab a few adventurous adults. As those films give way to the likes of Steve Jobs, Spotlight, or Bridge of Spies (all of which this writer thinks quite highly), the diversity lessens, and AFI FEST swoops in to remind me of the most important fact in cinema, and indeed all of art – there are no rules.
Take Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (the better French title translates to Three Memories of Youth). On the face of it, it’s a classical French coming-of-age story about young love, sex, art, and independence (it’s also, apparently, something of a se-/prequel to Desplechin’s 1996 My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument, though I’ve not had the pleasure). But if you think that premise precludes the possibility of an espionage plot, a bit of gothic horror, and at least two different narrators (one omnipotent), well, you don’t know Desplechin. The film opens with Paul (Mathieu Amalric) rolling around in bed with his lover before falling into a series of flashbacks – three chapters and an epilogue – loosely motivated by a framing device in which he tries to move back to France. In said flashbacks, we see a young Paul (played most prominently by Quentin Dolmaire, in his film debut) protecting his younger siblings from their insane mother, participate in some light smuggling, and, for the bulk of the film, fall in and out of love with the bewitching Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet, also making her debut), one of his younger sister’s classmates.
Even relative to French young-love stories, Esther is a pretty striking construct, a young woman with the self-assurance to know men adore her, and why. But Roy-Lecollinet finds in her not only this archetypal near-goddess, but a young woman who’s been wounded more times than one perhaps should by age 16. She’s juggling three boyfriends, she boasts, until she recalls, with a tinge of regret and a hope to avoid the topic, that one is basically over. The chemistry she builds with Dolmaire is lively and felt right from the start, an important component to carrying the story as far as Desplechin does, with them falling in and out of and back into a relationship as the demands of school and career mount.
Given the relative brevity of the first two memories, one could see a lesser film building more and more chapters, becoming more episodic, but Desplechin’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is his desire and ability to run with an impulse as far as it can go. That this “third chapter” constitutes at least half the movie does not seem to bother him much, nor should it when the filmmaking is equally freewheeling and ambitious. Working for the first time with cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky, who seems to find colors that never quite existed before, they devise an aesthetic as malleable as the story. The shadows can be emphasized when André Dussollier makes a cameo as a mysterious government agent, or brighten a bedroom to a glowing whiteness during a sexual encounter, or simply catch every ray of sunshine that dances off of Roy-Lecollinet’s blonde hair. As with most memories, the emotion attached to them is exceptionally intense. Desplechin and his collaborators are more than happy to meet it there.
Of course, one feels almost guilty using the term “freewheeling and ambitious” for one film alongside a discussion of Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, which is so firmly detached from any semblance of normalcy that its closest point of comparison is something like those choose-your-own-adventure pieces on Clickhole. It moves from an informational film on bathing to a submarine adventure to a damsel-in-distress-in-the-woods to a volcano sacrifice to a nightclub to major reconstructive surgery a man forgetting his wife’s birthday to a murder plot to the memories of a mustache to…well, I’ve forgotten at least a few steps along the way already, but you sort of get the drift. Every piece of the puzzle does connect, albeit via a sort of dream logic, but, hey, what’s the fun in reality anyway.
While Maddin (and co-director Evan Johnson) are up to the task aesthetically – shooting digitally but doing some remarkable effects work to get the image to look like degraded film, which can warp in and out of various environments with ease – their screenplay, co-written with Robert Kotyk, John Ashbery, and Kim Morgan, is somewhat less inspired. Riffing on classical story archetypes, they lean way too heavily on throwing in the most absurd elements to haphazardly engage the audience. Flapjacks as a source of oxygen? Why not. A tire sacrificed to the gods? Sure. An old woman portrayed by a cardboard standee? Okay. This sort of humor, for which the entire premise of the joke seems to be “bet you didn’t expect that to happen!”, is amusing enough in short bursts on Adult Swim, but over the course of two hours becomes exhausting. At its best moments, and it has many that stun and delight, Maddin and Johnson strike that great balance in which something can be both ridiculous and beautiful, but there are so many in between that are just grueling.
David has already written well on Ciro Guerra’s fantastic Embrace of the Serpent, so I won’t spend any time reiterating his points here. I will just say that any concerns I had about the potential for didacticism were quickly allayed. Guerra’s interested in the effect white men have on native tribes, but his expression of that is more fluid and dynamic than simply seeing the latter as victims and the former as overlords. The rubber trade is the most overtly violent Western structure in this jungle, but we see very few of the rubber merchants themselves, feeling instead the effect of their presence, a sort of additional ghost in a group of tribes for whom mysticism governs all. The white men Guerra does utilize are researchers, but they too come in with their own set of preconceived notions of power and submission, passively expecting compliance from the natives. As Guerra’s two sets of protagonists journey up and down the river in two different time periods (with cuts between them refreshingly minimal), we see the different forms this colonial presence takes. Some are positive, all introduce a ripple into the stream with unforeseen, permanent consequences. There is no right way to travel through it. You can only reach the end, and find that the end is not the end at all.
AFI FEST 2015 Presented by Audi continues through November 12th. My Golden Days will play again on Wednesday at 8:30pm, and is scheduled for release in the spring from Magnolia Pictures. The Forbidden Room is currently touring the country from Kino Lorber, and is scheduled to be released in Los Angeles in January. Embrace of the Serpent plays again today at 1:00pm, and will be released in February from Oscilloscope.