Wanderers, workers, models and monologues : Michael Pattison’s first dispatch from IndieLisboa 2013
Reviewed below: Leones [5/10]; Housemaids [6/10]; Workers [8/10]; Models [7/10]; Jesus, You Know [7/10].
As a critic attending IndieLisboa for the first time (in what’s now its ten-year existence), I’d invested all research prior to my arrival in navigating the city’s comparatively small but famously varied terrain (here a hill, there a stretch). It hadn’t occurred to me that the Lisbon Independent Film Festival would be appealing enough for the public to pack its venues – especially on an otherwise anonymous Monday evening.
As it happens, this was very much the case. Arriving at the mini-multiplex Cinema City in Alvalade equipped with a critic’s pass and a beginner’s naivety, I was turned away from both films penned into my itinerary: Museum Hours and Housemaids, both of which were apparently sold out. Directors Jem Cohen and Gabriel Mascaro are hardly names you would expect to fill a cinema to capacity outside of specially curated retrospectives (and even then…). My surprise was, nevertheless, double-edged: disappointment on the one hand, but on the other such high attendance figures was welcome news. Good for them, bad for me.
Onward, then, to a film I had opted against due to its programme notes. And though any synopsis fails to do its textures justice, Leones is an ambitious debut feature that markedly derives from (without bettering) the work of others. Twenty-eight year old Jazmin López writes and directs this Argentinian-French-Dutch co-production, which follows a quintet of teenagers through a seemingly unnavigable forest. As they trudge through dense greens quoting Hemingway, playing with firearms, listening to a cassette recording of themselves and miming a game of volleyball, López hints at deeper mysteries. To begin with, one of the clan has a recent scar on her nape, while the audio recording becomes increasingly loaded with a sense of doom.
The whole thing is shot on film, by Matías Mesa, in gorgeous roaming Steadicam, and comprises eighteen or so takes. As our wanderers drift out of frame with purpose, the camera probes the environs, accompanied by sound designer Julia Huberman’s intensified ambience and ominous, low-frequency drones before the quintet reappears, doubling back on themselves but none the wearier for it. Shades of Lisandro Alonso here, while as a succession of non-sequiturs Leones also resembles Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), as well as that film’s chief imitator, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2001).
If the latter film’s increasing sense of dread was sustained through an emotional engagement with its two protagonists, however, López’s film makes it clear from the outset that its borderline-obnoxious teens are Godardian ciphers about whom we care little – even if their meandering pilgrimage is beautifully captured.
Perhaps influenced by such images, I embarked upon my own journey, the following morning, to IndieLisboa’s vast Culturgest venue on foot. I visited the festival’s video library in order to catch Housemaids (Doméstica, 2012) after all, determined not to be defeated by the previous evening’s sell-out. Gabriel Mascaro’s directorial credit – to say nothing of his “script” – is somewhat problematic, given that the film’s concept involved seven children being given a camera each to document a week in the life of their families’ live-in maids, the raw material of which Mascaro then assembled into this 76-minute whole.
Interweaving diaristic dispatches, Housemaids takes the form of fly-on-the-wall documentation (“carry on talking, pretend the camera isn’t there”) as well as ad-hoc interviews between child and maid. It’s a potentially compelling methodology given the domestic intimacy at hand, but there’s a fundamental limitation to this cosy perspective: namely, the way in which the socio-economic foundations upon which a servant-employer relationship is based. As is made evident, however, each housekeeper has been conditioned by a tragic past. One maid tells in horrifying detail of how she miscarried triplets as a result of domestic abuse; another is seen sleeping propped against a settee, face-down, as if she literally worked herself to slumber.
Given that one of the housekeepers surveyed here is a man, the gender-specific title is of interest: said housekeeper relates how he entered his trade after his wife left him as a result of his inability to provide for her; subsequently, he’s been stripped of any masculine status. There are gender as well as racial implications here, both of which are de facto class problems. The most telling moment in the film might be when one housemaid admits that she has no complaints because her employer is actually a housemaid too — it goes some way to evoke the absurd image of a system built on service.
Housemaids caught in absurd daily rituals also feature in Workers (2013), Mexican filmmaker José Luis Valle’s very impressive first fiction feature, following his 2009 documentary El milagro del Papa. In it, two labourers in Tijuana are hoping to retire: Lidia (Susan Salazar) is one of two housemaids employed by a rich Livia Soprano-type nearing the end of her embittered life, while Rafael (Jesús Padilla) is himself ‘nearing the end’ – in his case, of thirty loyal years working as a cleaner at a Phillips factory. Respective obstacles to retirement are a beloved greyhound and an illegal immigrant status, but both Lidia and Rafael are determined to attain their goal – though one is seemingly more pro-active than the other, the film concludes with the funniest ten-years-later epilogue that I’ve seen.
This deadpan comedy provides clear evidence that Valle is a master image-maker, composing his frames with equal attention to back- and foreground. His sense of timing, furthermore, is right on the money. Take the film’s best scene, a single take in which all kinds of trades compete for space within the fixed frame: an ice cream van pulls up to sex workers standing outside their parlour, which is situated between a barber shop and a fast food stall; not long after, a knife-sharpener sets up a kerbside business to attract the fast food chef and local youths alike, while the sky grows darker thanks to seamless trickery and/or César Gutiérrez Miranda’s wonderful cinematography.
If Workers’ immaculate editing lends a sense of performativity to the labour depicted therein, Ulrich Seidl’s Models (1999) allows its eponymous group of hopefuls to directly address the camera as if it were a mirror. Vivian (Viviane Bartsch), Tanja (Tanja Petrovsky), Lisa (Lisa Grossman) and Elvyra (Elvyra Geyer) are bottom-rung models looking to etch careers for themselves while retaining their self-respect and negotiating ongoing domestic and relationship issues. Opening with peroxide blondes Vivian and Elvyra talking to one another in the back of a cab, Seidl’s film – which screened on 35mm as part of IndieLisboa’s retrospective of the Austrian heavyweight – daringly presents itself as a typically and hypocritically misogynist “exposé” that likes to look at its females while paying lip service to their plight.
Only it isn’t. Boosted by strong performances – Bartsch being the outright highlight – and a refreshing willingness to spare its performers exclusive nudity (instead, the most explicit full frontal nudity here involves male genitalia), Models is sensitive and often captivating stuff. Heaven knows why this quartet are so dogged in their quest to be objectified – liposuction, sunbeds, gym sessions, waxing and dieting are the words of every day – but one suspects Seidl has a deep admiration for these women that, unlike most of his male characters in this film, goes beyond sexual gratification.
M is for model, M is for monologue: confessions abound in Seidl’s Jesus, You Know (Jesus, Du weisst, 2003), which also appeared on 35mm. Here too you might think the filmmaker’s got it in for his characters (in this instance, theists), but he does well to elicit our sympathy for this perpetually sad cast of mourners, all of whom are appealing to Jesus for some levity in their everyday grind. Still, there is deadpan hilarity at work: during the monologues, Seidl, working with regular editor Christof Schertenleib (and Andrea Wagner), cuts to images of tellingly inanimate icons of Jesus, whose unchanging indifference is like some rebuff of the Kuleshov Effect.
Four more Seidl films screen during the festival: Animal Love (1996) and all three films in his Paradise Trilogy (2012-13). Notes on each are forthcoming…
24th April, 2013