VIENNALE 2008 capsules (4/7) : non-competing new films : including ‘The Wrestler’ [10/10]

The Beaches of Agnes. Playful, rather lovely cine-autobiography by Agnes Varda, director of Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), Vagabond (1985), The Gleaners and I (2000), and Jacquot de Nantes (1991), and co-director of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) with her late husband Jacques Demy – Jacquot was her tribute/love-letter to Demy, completed during his final months. Now marking her own 80th birthday, Varda takes us on a tangent-happy amiable amble through her globetrotting life and work – with cameos from friends/collaborators ranging from fellow Nouvelle Vague / Rive Gauche luminaries Godard and Marker to Harrison Ford, Alexander Calder and Jim Morrison. Reflectively rambling but always clear-eyed, Varda emerges as the best kind of eccentric elderly relative – one whose idiosyncratic creativity remains inspiringly undimmed into her ninth decade.

Birdsong. Many highbrow critics hailed Albert Serra's 2006 debut Honor de cavalleria – an austere Don Quixote adaptation – as a minor masterpiece, interpreting its soporific pace, underlit visuals and minimal dialogue as evidence of an artist at work. It's a similar deal with his follow-up Birdsong, which follows the Three Kings through various striking landscapes as they trek towards the new-born Jesus. Context, symbol and implication are all in this ostentatiously arduous film – one which feels like the work of a passionately religious individual struggling with the difficulties of expressing faith in this particular medium at this historical juncture. He doesn't quite pull it off – there's strong material here, but it's still an edit or two away from really coming into proper focus.

Liverpool. Saluted as the "poet and master" of Argentine cinema following La libertad and Los muertos, Lisandro Alonso spent years on his next feature, Liverpool – dashing off an hour-long "squib", Fantasma, along the way. Predictably, the supposedly "throwaway" Fantasma turns out to be the best thing he's ever done – a truly dazzling miniature – and Liverpool, though by no means without interest, shows signs of having been worked on and worked over for rather too long. A glum tale of a sailor visiting his aged mother in a remote corner of Patagonia, it's forbiddingly minimalist, snail-paced stuff – rewarding for those with the patience to go along with the journey, but frustrating in that we now know Alonso is capable of so much more.

Wendy and Lucy. After all-male two-hander road-movie Old Joy, Reichardt delivers another lo-fi, humanistically sensitive glimpse into marginal American lives – this is American "indie" cinema, but with just enough of a ragged "independent" edge to keep things interesting. Based on Jon Raymond's story 'Train Choir' (odd title), it's the measured, downbeat story of drifter Wendy (Michelle Williams) heading to a new life in Alaska with her dog. Our heroine is resourceful and proudly self-reliant – but also isn't averse to a spot of shoplifting, a lapse which results in disproportionately difficult consequences. A victim of tough economic circumstances, Wendy is, however, essentially the author of her own misfortunes – and Williams' mournful-gamine performance is just a tad too calculated to elicit our sympathies. Worth a look, nevertheless.
    {{an interesting note from the American Humane Association regarding this film}}

The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke delivers an Oscar-worthy performance – one that, barring accidents, surely will be recognised by the Academy – as a washed-up WWF-type ring-warrior, eking out a living on the New Jersey circuit some 20 years after his prime. But what's genuinely startling is that the film is much more than just a showcase for its star – indeed, the work by director Aronofsky (vaulting far beyond anything he's previously achieved) and feature-debutant scriptwriter Robert D Siegel, plus their various technical collaborators, matches Rourke at every step. The stunning result is a thunderously entertaining, surprisingly moving, deftly thought-provoking example of current American cinema at its very best: by some measure the finest movie of the year, and one of the decade's top half-dozen so far.
        [more to follow on this film on Jigsaw Lounge over the coming weeks]

Neil Young
9th November, 2008

THE BEACHES OF AGNES : [7/10] : Les plages d'Agnes : France 2008 : Agnes VARDA : 110m M, 28.10
BIRDSONG : [5/10] : El Cant dels ocells aka The Song of the Birds : Spain 2008 : Albert SERRA : 96m G, 22.10
LIVERPOOL : [6/10] : Argentina (Arg/Fr/Neth/Spn/Ger) 2008 : Lisandro ALONSO : 85m G, 25.10
WENDY AND LUCY : [6/10] : USA 2008 : Kelly REICHARDT : 80m M, 26.10
THE WRESTLER : [10/10] : USA 2008 : Darren ARONOFSKY : 105m G, 23.10

VIENNALE 2008 index-page