for this week’s Tribune : SURVEILLANCE; THE YOUNG VICTORIA; WENDY & LUCY; Rotterdam report
Starring : Bill Pullman, Julia Ormond
Director : Jennifer Lynch
Wendy and Lucy [6/10]
Starring : Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton
Director : Kelly Reichardt
The Young Victoria [6/10]
Starring : Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend
Director : Jean-Marc Vallee
WITH David Lynch stuck in what looks – after 2006's INLAND EMPIRE – disturbingly like a downward creative spiral, how timely that his daughter Jennifer should, a decade and a half after her disastrous debut Boxing Helena, stage such an unexpected and belated return to prominence with lowish-budget thriller Surveillance, a rather overcooked affair that one might charitably describe as a "hommage" to her illustrious dad.
In terms of mood and ambience, the Lynch apple clearly hasn't fallen very far from the tree: indeed, anyone who didn't know any better might possibly mistake the early reels of Surveillance as the work of Lynch pere (who's credited solely – but, on the UK posters at least, very prominently – as executive producer) rather than fille. That's partly because the main actors are a pair of oddball cops, not-too-distant cousins of Twin Peaks' Dale Cooper, perhaps, played by sometime D.Lynch collaborators Bill Pullman (Lost Highway) and Julia Ormond (INLAND EMPIRE) as Sam and Elizabeth.
The pair, who bicker amiably in a vaguely Mulder-and-Scully fashion. arrive at an out-of-the-way police station that's coping with the aftermath of a particularly brutal multiple homicide in a nearby dwelling – the only witness to which is a traumatised 8-year-old girl, Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins). Sinister shenanigans duly ensue in a script – credited to J.Lynch and Kent Harper – that resembles a cross between last year's underrated home-invasion spine-chiller The Strangers and James Mangold's excessively twisty Identity from 2003. As with the latter movie, part of the "fun" of Surveillance lies in trying to second-guess the "shocking" third-act rug-puller, though one doesn't exactly have to be Perry
Mason to see what's coming round the next corner.
And whereas Lynch Jr has clearly studied the basic concomitants of Lynch Sr's style, she shows little of his elan or inspiration in terms of putting them together at the service of either (a) an engaging story or (b) a probing journey into the psychological dark-side. Instead, the arch, stilted and self-consciously offbeat Surveillance is – despite a supporting performance from rising-star Pell James that helps to keep things moderately watchable – essentially a somewhat clunky B-picture, one that would surely have gone straight to DVD if its director's surname had been Smith, Jones or Brown.
ALSO hailing from the American "indie" sector – specifically its all-too-underpopulated distaff side – is Wendy and Lucy, third feature from writer-director Kelly Reichardt. Her Old Joy (2006) reaped critical plaudits and film-festival awards, plys arthouse box-office success on the other side of the Atlantic. This latest effort – a slender, beguiling tale of economic hardship and stoic persistence – will most likely increase her following. In her favour are three factors : (1) the chilly economic climate makes the picture feel very topical, (2) the presence of a cute canine – Reichardt's Lucy, effectively playing 'herself' in one of the title roles, and (3) the presence of a "movie star" – Michelle Williams, who's in pretty much every scene in the other title-role, Wendy.
We discover the gamine Wendy in small-town Oregon en route to find work in Alaska, her progress by the breakdown of her clapped-out Honda. The repairs prove unexpectedly costly – but a bigger problem results when she's arrested for shoplifting, and while in custody loses track of her four-legged companion. Her search for the dog forms the bulk of the film's narrative, bringing her into contact with a wide range of folk who are varying degrees of friendly, hostile or neutral.
Wendy and Lucy is based, like Old Joy, on a short story by Jonathan Raymond (who collaborated on the screenplay) – it's an unassuming miniature which runs a total of 80 minutes but whose credits roll (conspicuously slowly) at the 76-minute mark. Reichardt clearly intends to speak quietly but to speak volumes about the state of society in 21st century America, showing the consequences of Republican economics down the decades from Nixon to Reagan and both Bushes. Her film is likeably rough-edged and unadorned, and attuned to the sapping frustrations of existence on or just below the poverty line.
The impact of the film is, however, undercut by its own specifics. There are many ways to lose a dog, but the one presented here is decidedly convoluted and unlikely – with Wendy very much the author of her own misfortunes (as she's told by one unsympathetic onlooker, "if a person can't afford dog-food, they shouldn't have a dog.") Reichardt is so fixated on her heroine's travails that intriguing peripheral figures remain under-explored – it's frustrating that John Robinson's rules-is-rules supermarket employee Andy has hardly anything to do apart from catch Wendy shoplifting, though at least his character is given the dignity of a name: Wally Dalton has the second biggest (human) part in the movie as a helpful Security Guard, but Wendy never bothers to ask what he's called.
Perhaps Reichardt doesn't intend Wendy to be particularly sympathetic – and the character's default mode of cow-eyed, wounded dignity certainly tests our patience at times. This pretty, trendily-attired young Caucasian woman makes, meanwhile, for a somewhat unrepresentative example of America's exploited underclass – an example of Reichardt's pill-sugaring tendencies. Worth a look, nevertheless.
ANOTHER young woman in difficult straits is the focus of The Young Victoria, though the problems faced by Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Hanover (Emily Blunt) in the Britain of the 1830s are of a rather different stripe from those encountered by Wendy in present-day Portland. The picture, written by Gosford Park Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes, traces the tricky process by which the gauche Princess ascended to the throne as Queen Victoria and aims of showing the human face behind the still-familiar, all-too-stern monarchical visage. Crucial to this – for both Victoria and Fellowes – is her courtship with and marriage to the dashing but intelligent Prince Albert von Saxe-Coburg und Gotha (Rupert Friend), a relationship which steadily grows to dominate the film and steer it from behind-palace-doors politicking (featuring the likes of Paul Bettany as PM Lord Melbourne) towards lushly-appointed romance.
It's all pretty standard-issue corsets-and-corsages stuff – Young Winston meets Mrs Brown – with some flights of dramatic license that may surprise viewers already familiar with Victoria's early reign. For everyone else, however, it's a salient reminder of (A) how German our royal family has been for so long (standard Buck House terms of endearment include "schatzi" and "mein leibling") and (B) what a good egg the "able, clever, faithful" Albert actually was. It's odd that, despite his Hall, Memorial and other, less salubrious reminders of his name, many people have forgotten what a key role he played in Britain's social and economic development through the 19th century. Playing queens is a fast-track to Dench/Mirren status, of course, and Blunt is clearly being positioned as the Next Kate Winslet – but, despite the movie's title, it's Friend who's rightly the star of the show: Victoria and Albert would have been a fairer appellation, museum-piece connotations notwithstanding.
WHILE the financial crisis has obviously resulted in genuine misery and misfortune for many millions around the globe – with the worst very probably yet to come – it hasn't necessarily been exclusively bad news. In certain instances, what we've seen is closer to a long-overdue set of corrections, albeit jarringly sudden ones, allowing reality to intrude on – and thus puncture – some very bloated bubbles. The glamorous-but-artistic world of film festivals being a prime example.
Simply put, there are now far too many film-festivals, and most of them show far, far too many films. World cinema – Hollywood, Bollywood, "IndieWood", Europe, and much of the rest – has been guilty of severe over-production for quite some time. And while Stalin may (or may not) have reckoned that "quantity has a quality of its own," for those of us who spend a significant part of the year travelling around the festival circuit, it's become a common complaint that outstanding movies are becoming increasingly hard to find within avalanches of mediocre fare.
The 38th renewal of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR, 21st Jan – 1st Feb) was a case in point. This festival has, over the decades, established a reputation for showcasing the medium's more adventurous and cutting-edge work, while steadily building audiences (locals and internationals alike) with such success that it's become the biggest cultural event in the entire Netherlands.
But after the controversial and messily-handled the departure of popular British head-honcho Simon Field in 2004, the festival seemed to quickly lose its bearings. The feeling of confused flux subsised slightly when fresh-faced IFFR board-member Rutger Wolfson, whose background was in visual arts curatorship rather than cinema, was appointed at the eleventh hour as a "temporary" measure for the 2008 festival. After a quietly promising debut he was given the gig full-time shortly after, making 2009 the first IFFR to unfold under Wolfson's full imprimatur – and we were told to expect a slimmed-down, easier-to-handle, Crunch-conscious event.
Marking the new era, the festival's venerable leaping-tiger logo was replaced by a stark, monochrome. geometric representation of a feline visage – ever-blunt Rotterdammers remarked that it looked more like a cat-food ad than the branding for such a prestigious cultural jamboree. And on arrival at the bustlingly multi-ethnic city that's home to Europe's largest port – and whose centre was rebuilt with various degrees of inspiration after being Luftwaffe-flattened in 1940 – IFFR visitors discovered that the changes were largely superficial.
The catalogue looked suspiciously similar in bulk and scope to the 2008 version – both run to exactly 496 pages. And while the festival's confusing array of sections and strands had been condensed into three main areas – Bright Future (features by first and second-time directors), Spectrum (covering more established film-makers) and Signals (more experimental, offbeat or unclassifiable fare) – this didn't make the overall programme, with its 300+ features, any more manageable.
One thing that hadn't changed much was the centrepiece Tiger Competition, comprising 14 films by first and second time directors, with three equal Tiger prizes up for grabs. For a festival which likes to position itself at or near the avant-garde, it's disappointing that only fictional features are allowed to compete for the Tigers – if a conservative event such as Cannes can give its top prize to a documentary (Michael Mann's Fahrenheit 911), one wonders why Rotterdam persists with what's increasingly looking like a very outmoded distinction, especially with so many movies straddling the fiction/documentary "divide."
A case in point: the competition bafflingly found room for woeful British sex-comedy Dogging – A Love Story, Simon Ellis's opportunistic, prurient foray into a subculture (involving, you may possibly, semi-public in-car coitus) that created some minor tabloid furore a while back. Giving the impression that it had been cooked up by representatives of the Newcastle tourist board – the Geordie metropolis hasn't looked this slick since Stormy Monday – and the more reactionary elements of the Daily Mail editorial staff, the seedily salacious Dogging (which, given the geographical setting, should surely have been called Go Forth, Tyne Dogger) was universally and rightly pilloried by Rotterdam's critics and audiences alike.
A much more worthy Tiger-contender would surely have been documentary Survival Song, YU Guangyi's follow-up to his belated, arrestingly gritty debut Timber Gang (2005). The focus is again on a remote logging-camp in the uncharted wilds of China, though this time it's inhabited not by loggers but by a farmer displaced during the construction of a nearby reservoir. He's joined by his long-suffering wife and a hapless factotum/handyman, who gradually (and intriguingly) becomes the focus of the piece.
A paean to persistence and grit, Survival Song is marbled with a disarmingly low-key humour and certainly doesn't pull its punches in identifying who's to blame for the tough circumstances we observe ("And it's all the f*cking party's fault," someone fumes, "Communist Party, my ass!") I caught 20 films during my five-day stint at IFFR 38, and Survival Song is among the most noteworthy of the newer titles – not that, given the current state of arthouse distribution, this low-fi, digital-video-shot enterprise stands much chance of UK screenings beyond adventurous film-festivals.
One IFFR hit that is lined up for UK distribution is Bronson, a British picture directed by Danish maverick Nicolas Winding Refn, which comes out here on March 13th and will be covered in this magazine in more detail during its week of release. Suffice to say that this supposed biopic of notoriously long-serving prisoner 'Charles Bronson' (nom de guerre of Aberystwyth-born Michael Peterson) is in fact as savage indictment of the British penal system as Steve McQueen's rather more highbrow Hunger, despite being made with the kind of berserk flashiness (equal parts Ken Russell, David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick) that may lead many to dismiss it out of hand.
Rather more sedate fare was to be found – lurking in the Tiger competition – in the form of Alicia Scherson's Turistas, a Chilean tale of a woman discovering herself in the verdant surroundings of a riverine country-park. Scherson is a botanist by training, a detail that even casual viewers of the movie – which pays almost as much attention to birds, bugs and plants as to the human participants – might well divine. Low-key and restrained, Turistas is the kind of accomplished, unfussy fare that seldom finds much favour with either British distributors or with festival jurors, and hails from a country which (unlike its neighbour, Argentina) hasn't associated with any kind of hyped-up "new wave."
It was disappointing – but unsurprising – that Tourists missed out on a Tiger, said prizes going to the cross-cultural Turkish quasi-romance Wrong Rosary (worthy but essentially melodramatic and excessively coincidence-reliant), the much-praised South Korean thriller Breathless (which I didn't see, but reckon deserves some kind of chutzpah gong for nicking the English-language title of Jean-Luc Godard's 1959 classic) and the little-mentioned Iranian entry Be Calm and Count To Seven.
The consensus view was this was a decidedly ho-hum Rotterdam – gems scattered amid much dross – with a decidedly ho-hum competition. Even Germany's ever-reliable Christian Petzold seemed on (relatively) so-so form with his latest psychological drama Jerichow, a rock-solid but ultimately somewhat underwhelming update of The Postman Always Rings Twice.
And if there was a new master (or "mistress") lurking in the wings, by the festival's end few attendees were any the wiser as to his or her identity. My personal biggest "discovery" of the event was 27 years old – but it was a remarkable film, rather than a talented individual of relative youth. This was L'Ange (= 'The Angel') from 1982, by the French director Patrick Bokanowski. Seemingly long-revered in avant-garde circles, Bokanowski had never previously popped up on my radar, but I'll certainly be seeking him out at future festivals after catching a double-bill that included his latest work Battements solaires (a beautiful, 18-minute, near-abstract video piece). L'ange is an uncompromising example of early-eighties experimenta – essentially non-narrative, though it's possible to piece together some aspects of what might constitute a "story" (involving sinister shenanigans in a cavernous mansion during what looks like the 18th century.)
That would, however, be somewhat to miss the point: what's presented is a series of discrete "episodes", each executed in a slightly different style, but all relying on fundamental ideas of repetition, disorientation, and the scrutiny of the projected celluloid image. It doesn't all come off, and one or two of the sequences descend into banality. But at its best – such as the first nine minutes, which largely consist of a masked sabreur lunging, lunging, lunging at a doll hanging from an empty room's ceiling, constitute one of the most astonishing openings in all of cinema – the work reaches genuinely sublime heights of brilliant transcendence. It was the only thing I saw at Rotterdam this year that even approached masterpiece-level – but, given the current state of things, even one near-masterpiece per week is perhaps nothing to cough at too loudly…
24th February, 2009
written for the 5.Mar. issue of Tribune magazine
JIGSAW LOUNGE // ROTTERDAM 2009 INDEX PAGE
WENDY AND LUCY : [6/10] : USA 2008 : Kelly REICHARDT : 80m (BBFC) : seen 26th October 2008, Metro cinema, Vienna (public show – Viennale / Vienna International Film Festival) : original review
THE YOUNG VICTORIA : [6/10] : UK/USA 2008 : Jean-Marc VALLEE : 105m (BBFC) : seen 23th January 2009, CineWorld cinema, Milton Keynes (press show – 60th CinemaDays event)