Año uña (2007)

Año uña uses photographs to tell the story of a sweet but ultimately impractical friendship between a US college student and a Mexican teenager in Mexico City.

Año uña, Year of the NailMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriter:
Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Jonás Cuarón

Running time: 80 minutes

Alternate title: The Year of the Nail

In Jonás Cuarón’s simple but attentive fiction film début, Año uña (The Year of the Nail), we find ourselves rooting for a 14-year-old boy in his quest to be intimate with a female college student. Perhaps it’s because of the genuine likability of this naïve young boy, a horny Mexican teenager named Diego (played by Cuarón’s real-life half-brother, Diego Cataño), or because of the leisurely conversations between him and his crush or because both are in on the game.

Made up entirely of still photographs (around half of them in black-and-white), the film’s form is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. But although the two works are visually similar, at least initially, they have little in common beyond telling their stories at a much more sputtering pace than we’re used to. The reason why Cuarón decided on this approach was not because of any particularly artistic sensibility but because of necessity. Over the course of a year, he had taken thousands of photographs of his then-girlfriend, Eireann Harper, and Cataño interacting with each other. He subsequently reordered the pictures and added new sounds – voiceovers and diegetic dialogue – to shape a different story from the real images.

The resulting sequence of pictures is an array of fleeting moments captured and emphasised for however the filmmaker desires. It moves from greyscale through desatured colour to colour photographs that very obviously originated on film. Some of the images are out of focus, others are very sharp. These are all fleeting moments tied together by sounds, thoughts and bits of dialogue to create a mosaic of an experience that belongs to no one and to everyone.

Occasionally, there is the slightest of movements across a picture to simulate a pan that somewhat changes the composition or plays with the forms inside the frame. Because the film is based on photographs taken of people who were often not aware that they would end up in a motion picture, some of the faces have been blurred, presumably out of respect for their privacy.

The film opens with this explanation:

From 2004 to 2005 I photographed my surroundings.
At the end of the year, I ordered the images in such a way that they suggested the following narrative.
These are documentary images. The moments and characters are real.

Only the story is fictional.

There is some initial setup in which we see Molly (Harper), a US student on an exchange programme in Mexico City who is constantly embarrassed by her loud-mouth Yankee friend, Katie, yearning for a more personal relationship with the country and its people. The first image we get of Diego is accompanied by a voice-over informing us that he jerked off three times the previous evening. And he is obsessed with the idea of seeing his fast-maturing cousin’s breasts.

Traces of Y Tu Mamá También, which Cuarón’s father, Alfonso, had directed just a few years earlier, are easily discernible (oversexed boy lusts after older woman), but it is to the young Cuarón’s credit that he skillfully keeps us wondering about the outcome without ever frustrating our hopes or expectations.

The story plays out over a year during which we see Molly the gringa move from having trouble getting her mouth around words with indiginous origins, like Quetzalcoatl, Tlalnepantla, Chicoloapan and Tlacuitlapa, to fluently saying the Spanish tongue twister that Diego taught her. Meanwhile, Diego develops from a horny 14-year-old to a horny 15-year-old who is infatuated with whichever girl is closest to him, and the most consequential development is that his ingrown toenail (whence the English title) is finally treated. The significance of the nail – slightly uncomfortable when it is there but immediately forgotten after it is removed – is self-evident.

Some of the best moments in the film are those, obviously also drawing from the narrative well of Y Tu Mamá También, in which voice-overs are juxtaposed with each other to create dramatic irony and insight into the characters that would have been difficult in a live-action film. Another point of reference here is the slightly socially awkward interaction between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen’s characters on the balcony in Annie Hall (Allen used subtitles instead of voice-overs).

The spontaneity of shooting with actors is lost here, as the conversations recorded after the fact come across as stilted and unconvincing, although the insistence and the breathy, moaning inflection of Cataño’s voice precisely convey his character’s annoyance at not being able to get what he craves. For some reason, almost all of Molly’s voice-over is produced as a loud whisper, which becomes increasingly bothersome as the film progresses.

In addition, the focus is scattered all over the place: Not only Diego and Molly, but also Diego’s mother, his cousin and a few others get their own scenes and voice-overs that are tangentially related but never an integral part of the central storyline.

The ease and skill with which Cuarón creates comical yet recognisable trains of thought in the teenage Diego’s head is simply remarkable. Año uña is a very funny film because the viewer can identify (with) the often silly notions of romance and intimacy that Diego is dealing with, such as when he considers the possibility of drowning in order for Molly to give him mouth to mouth. But the perspective is always gentle and understanding, and while it misses the hammer blow of a Y Tu Mamá También, it is nonetheless a beautifully conceived and strikingly executed work of story telling.

Elephants Never Forget (2004)

Lorenzo Vigas’s short film looks at the indecision confronting a young boy and his sister who think they have made up their minds to kill their father.

elefantes-nunca-olvidanMexico/Venezuela
3.5*

Director:
Lorenzo Vigas
Screenwriter:
Lorenzo Vigas

Director of Photography:
Héctor Ortega

Original title: Los elefantes nunca olvidan

Running time: 11 minutes

Juan (Guillermo Muñoz) is on a mission, but he hasn’t quite thought it through. In the opening scene of Lorenzo Vigas’s 2004 short Elephants Don’t Forget, he walks quickly down a dirt road, his torn jeans featuring prominently in close-up. He reaches a nondescript tenement with graffiti-covered outside walls, where his sister (Greisy Mena) furtively hands him a paper bag with a pistol inside. It seems they are both in on the mission, but her misgivings are much more evident. Initially, they are both so nervous they don’t even look at each other as they head towards what they hope will be their scene of the crime.

We quickly learn the intended victim is their biological father, Pedro (Gonzalo Cubero), because of whom they carry scars both physical and mental. Somehow they have tracked him down selling fruit at “the outpost”, have procured a revolver and hitched a ride on the truck transporting Pedro from one place to the next to peddle his wares.

Of course, once they come face to face with their nemesis, whose absence has fed their fury, they start to doubt whether they can go through with it. Juan, who is tasked with pulling the trigger, evinces palpable indecision as he tries to put on a brave face while fighting his inner demons. It is no surprise that he is full of bravado when Pedro either is far away or has his eyes closed, but once Pedro stares him down, he surrenders all his bravery.

Notwithstanding Pedro’s description of himself halfway through the film as an “elephant” because he never forgets a face, despite the fact that he doesn’t recognise his own flesh and blood and even goes as far as to flirt (albeit unknowingly) with his daughter, the “elephants” in the title likely refer to Juan and his sister, too. But if it is Pedro, one has to keep in mind it takes more a mere bullet to fell an elephant, and if it is the two teenagers, well, when was the last time you saw an elephant with a pistol?

These two children are out of their depth, and while we can empathise with their rage (in an early close-up, we see a gruesome scar allegedly left by Pedro’s earlier abuse), it is fascinating to see them try to convince themselves that revenge taken in this way is the best way to deal with the injustices of the past. Half of the film – a five full minutes – takes place on the back of the truck as Pedro tries to strike up a conversation with the two unwilling children.

Although the film has some gorgeous shots that play off blue skies against the fields of almost luminous yellow, with dark clouds hovering just above the horizon, the handheld camera and the very brutal editing, which includes inserting close-ups without warning, serve no real purpose beyond signalling the film was made on what appears to be a shoestring budget.

Except for the father issues and in particular the desire of a man or a boy to kill his own father, there is no apparent point of contact between Elephants Never Forget and director Vigas’s feature film début, From Afar, which examines the indecision of a young man about embarking on a relationship with a 50-something dental prostheticist in a much more visually sumptuous production.

The Feast of Stephen (2009)

James Franco applies the language of cinema to adapt an Anthony Hecht poem and produces a work of sexual intensity that nicely dovetails with the films of dedicatee Kenneth Anger.

The Feast of StephenUSA
3.5*

Director:
James Franco

Screenwriter:
James Franco

Director of Photography:
Christina Voros

Running time: 266 seconds

James Franco’s The Feast of Stephen, a five-minute short film adapted from the eponymous poem by Anthony Hecht, is about sex, violence, violence as sex and sex as violence. Its ambiguous depiction of homoeroticism makes it difficult to determine whether or not it is a fantasy woven from reality, although the director overplays his hand in the second half with an unnecessarily literal portrayal of what was already quite apparent in the first half.

This wordless black-and-white short dedicated to experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger has something in common with one of the director’s earliest films, Fireworks, released more than 60 years earlier in 1947. Anger’s film was about a teenager (played by Anger himself) who goes in search of “relief” and finds it after wading through some sadomasochism. Like Fireworks, Franco’s film touches on the issue of shame and violence but also, eventually, sexual gratification, albeit tinged with violence and scatology, but luckily The Feast of Stephen takes a more serious tack and eschews the camp so often visible in Anger’s oeuvre, as Franco spares us the sight of milk-covered flesh.

The film opens on a basketball court, where four teenage boys – two of them shirtless – are passing the ball and shooting hoops. Along the fence comes a boy, the titular Stephen, wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt and glasses – clearly, at odds with the rest of the group. Stephen stares at them, and something they look back at him, straight into the camera. He stares at them, and they start moving in slow motion, their youthful torsos rippling in the afternoon sun. He stares at them and notices how their hands playfully touch each other’s taut bodies. Suddenly, his desire is made manifest by more carnal images of the boys’ genitals. Now, Stephen is staring even more intently, and when one of them looks back, and the camera rushes towards him, it is clear Stephen has been caught out. He bolts off, his secret now out in the open, but the violence that ensues when the quartet of boys catch up to him also makes his innermost thoughts a reality.

The pounding that he gets all over his body, experienced most acutely in his groin, gradually becomes a pounding from behind. At this point, the implication is clear, but this is also the moment at which Franco goes too far in order to emphasise beyond a shadow of a doubt that this act of violence has a strong sexual undertone, as a cut suddenly removes all clothing, and we see Stephen being penetrated by the boys over whom he’d been tripping out. Of course, this moment is as imagined as the earlier moment of nudity that had briefly revealed the boys on court in the buff, and perhaps this prior image forms a sturdy means of support for the later scene, although both intellectually and emotionally it would have benefited from much tighter editing during the sodomy scene.

Despite its last-minute overreach, The Feast of Stephen is a seriously executed film that is thoroughly enjoyable and – unlike many of Franco’s other works – never overstays its welcome. The camera work has a grittiness that fits its subject very well, and while the lead actor comes across as more of a blank canvas than an actual character, the players’ movements are all beautifully coordinated. The film doesn’t have the grace or the sensuality of, say, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, but the brutality wrapped in fantasy makes for two easily accessible levels on which to process the events, and in a film less than five minutes long, that is not bad at all.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s prelude to his award-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives offers very little but looks exquisite and does hint at a deeper meaning.

letter-uncle-boonmeeThailand/UK
3*

Director:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Screenwriter:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Director of Photography:
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Running time: 17 minutes

Original title: จดหมาย ถึงลุงบุญมี
Transliterated title: Cdh̄māy t̄hụng loong buỵ mī

For the sake of clarity, this review refers to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the film’s “director” while using the term “filmmaker” to point to the anonymous diegetic individual/s who is/are allegedly making the film in front of our eyes.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee – a trial run  for what would eventually become his Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – eludes explanation to the uninitiated viewer and eschews plot in favour of feeling, which is always a gamble. However, while Weerasethakul does give us a bit more to chew on, it is only in the short film’s closing credits that we get a firm indication of the theme that we were witness to.

The images in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, all linked to the small town of Nabua, are without a main character. Except for what appears to be an ape-like apparition lurking in the forest, there is only a single individual whose face we clearly see, and he never speaks nor does anything of note – in fact, he barely moves at all, and we certainly don’t know his name nor function in the story. But the director does give a subtle hint, as the man, like all of the handful of other characters we see in the film, wears a military uniform, a feature that receives some weight from a voice-over recalling how “soldiers once occupied this place” and that they “killed and tortured the villagers and forced them to flee to the jungle”. The many portraits we see on the walls inside the cottage presumably pictures of these villagers.

Furthermore, the closing credits are immediately preceded by a black screen carrying the following dedication, which briefly contextualises the action, albeit with extreme hesitation: “For Uncle Boonmee Srigulwong, who remained in northeastern Thailand for his past reincarnations, and for the residents of the village of Nabua who were forced to leave their homes.”

The film starts by repeating the words in the titular letter to the filmmaker’s uncle Boonmee. However, “filmmaker” is a very slippery term here, because neither of the two (different!) voices that speak the letter via voice-over belongs to Weerasethakul. The fact that the two voices audibly do not belong to the same individual is emblematic of the director’s approach to his story, which relishes the mixture of reality and fiction that is apparent at every turn.

In the short letter, reproduced below, the filmmaker talks about the film we are watching and how it likely fails to accurately depict the reality of his uncle’s living conditions. The making of the film is supported by off-screen dialogue later on about the wording of the letter itself, and we get a very modernist breaking of the fourth wall when we see someone swing the matte box away in order to change a lens and thus allow us to “see things more clearly”.

Uncle,
I have been here for a while. I want to see a movie about your life. So I proposed a project about your reincarnations. In my script, your house is in a longan farm surrounded by mountains. But here there are endless plains and rice fields.
Last week, I met a man I thought was your son. He works at the auto garage. But after talking to him, I thought he was your nephew because his father was a policeman who owned hundreds of cows. Judging from your book, I don’t think you owned a lot of cows. And you were a teacher, weren’t you? The man was old. He couldn’t remember his father’s name very well. Might have been Boonmee or Boonma. He said it was a long time ago.
Here in Nabua, there are several houses well-suited for this short film for which I got funding from England. I don’t know what your house looked like. I can’t use the one in my script since it is so different from the ones here. Maybe some parts of these houses would resemble yours.

These words play out on the soundtrack while we watch the camera gracefully track through the empty cottages, devoid of any life but vibrating with absence as we see room after room with bedding on the floor and portraits on the walls. There is a beautiful transition when the last tracking shot eventually opens onto a full-frame view of a golden sunset in the distance, beyond the lush greenery in the foreground. This moment is accompanied by a question as to whether Uncle Boonmee had a different view from his own home compared with the one we see in front of us.

The uncertainty, which extends to the identity of the subject himself, is clear as day in this letter. But it is interesting to note that even though the filmmaker, whoever he is, addresses this letter to someone who is likely already dead, and he is not sure that the final product will reflect his uncle’s reality, he is confident that his uncle has indeed had multiple lives thanks to reincarnation. Perhaps that explains the bizarre egg-shaped object in the garden, which puffs out thick plumes of smoke from inside itself throughout the film without any explanation.

The end of the film includes the abrupt and unexplained appearance of the hairy creature, which might also be the thing or person barely perceptible behind a thin pink curtain in the cottage on two occasions in the film. However, things move very quickly, and then, suddenly, the story is over, if it ever really started.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee feels disjointed, reaching for mostly uninformative bits of voice-over to compensate for – or perhaps to attempt to mask – the lack of substance. The visuals pique our interest, but the ending will leave most filmgoers (certainly those who haven’t seen the subsequent feature film) scratching their heads and ultimately sinks what comes before.

Lake Tahoe (2008)

lake-tahoeMexico

4*
Director:
Fernando Eimbcke

Screenwriters:
Fernando Eimbcke

Paula Markovitch
Director of Photography:
Alexis Zabé

Running time: 86 minutes

Lake Tahoe is an acquired taste. This small film by director Fernando Eimbcke consists mostly of static shots and has very little dialogue. It is set in a town so sleepy that the main character’s first act, inexplicably crashing his family’s red Nissan Tsuru on a wide road devoid of any turns, is the most action we’ll hear (we don’t even see the accident) the entire film. The boy’s name is Juan Cardozo, and through seemingly random incidents in which very little happens, we learn something about him in a way that is ultimately very satisfying for those who can stand the wait.

Eimbcke already showed in his début film, the narratively cosy and visually exciting Duck Season (Temporada de patos), that he is interested in characters rather than events. Both films also take place in a very short time frame: Duck Season over a Sunday afternoon, Lake Tahoe presumably on a Saturday morning and into Sunday morning. Both films star Diego Cataño as a taciturn, kind-hearted teenager who has some stuff to deal with. His presence is a big reason why these two films work so well. We can see him thinking behind his big eyes, even though we only have the faintest idea what might be going on in his head, and this mystery, which is never entirely opaque, is effective at keeping the viewer’s attention.

During two-thirds of the film, we get multiple shots of Juan walking around, often in frames that repeat again and again, trying to find someone who can help him fix the car. On his way around the town in which he often seems to be the only one who is (barely) awake, he meets an assortment of oddball characters, from a young mechanic who is a kung fu fanatic to an elderly mechanic who shares breakfast with his boxer dog, Sica, in a scene that becomes ever more touching as the film wears on.

Countless black screens interrupt what little action there is, although the soundtrack is ever-present, making us focus on the small details in the wind that are here one second and have disappeared the next. Most of the shots suggest the same idea, as the frame is empty for significant stretches of time at the beginning at the end of the take, with Juan traversing the screen in the middle. It is like a deadly quiet lake with a ripple of movement that breaks the stasis before it returns to tranquillity once more. 

The theme of loss becomes central to the film towards the third act, as we realise what is gnawing at Juan. But there is a long wait before Eimbcke gives us the information we need, and even his presentation of Juan is an exercise in patience, as we never get a close-up of his face and have to wait a very long time just to see him from closer than in a long shot. Eimbcke’s director of photography, Alexis Zabé, who has worked with Carlos Reygadas and also lensed Eimbcke’s Duck Season, departs from the static shots on at least two occasions. The first time, it works, as Juan escapes from an uncomfortable situation and we suddenly get two short dolly shots. But the second time, when Juan sees his mother crying in the bathroom, there is a slight push-in that is out of sync with the rest of the film.

While the latter shot attempts to elicit some feeling from us, there are a few scenes that are surprisingly effective at addressing our emotions. One involves the old mechanic making an important, albeit spur-of-the-moment, decision that ties in Juan’s own situation, a second is another unexpected scene late at night between Juan and the receptionist from an auto shop, and a third comes in the final scenes between Juan and his brother. Eimbcke, who had already worked so beautifully with children in Duck Season, continues his impressive understanding of their emotions here and gets another impressive performance from the young Cataño whose combination of white and black clothing suggests some inner struggle in the character. 

Lake Tahoe trips up only once, and that is by having a cutaway too soon, during one of the most powerful emotional moments for Juan. But in most other respects, this is a beautiful experience of spending time with a character that very slowly lets his guard down, accepts the gaping hole a loss has left in his life and assumes his new role with as much courage as he can muster. The film is absolutely beautiful, and thanks to Eimbcke and Cataño also eminently watchable.

Duck Hunting (2009)

Lov na raceSlovenia

4*
Director:
Rok Biček

Screenwriter:
Rok Biček

Director of Photography:
Simon Tanšek

Running time: 23 minutes

Original title: Lov na race

One shot early in Rok Biček’s 23-minute Duck Hunting puts our mind at ease even while we feel the narrative tension building. It is a shot around the dinner table, and we have already been introduced to the three main characters in the present. In this particular scene, the story has skipped backwards into the past. The father is seated on our left and one of his sons, Matej, is on the right. Right in front of us, with his back turned towards the camera, is the younger brother, Robi, who is barely moving. For the first few moments of the scene, we see only these three, before the mother’s head suddenly appears from directly behind, or in front of, Robi.

All the while, there is a faint whistling sound, which had already started in the previous scene, many hours earlier out in the woods where the father took his sons duck hunting, and this sound disappears the moment Robi leaves the table halfway through the meal. At that point, about one-third into the film, we still have no idea what is going on, but when the director drops a hint a few minutes later, our mind goes back to this scene of the three men and the almost invisible mother.

Biček, who at the time of production was attending the University of Ljubljana’s Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, includes very little dialogue in this short film and instead opts for long takes, whose apparent stasis is subverted because they were recorded on a handheld camera.

There is another scene at the dinner table, right at the end of the film, that is even more crushing, as the characters arrive at a kind of catharsis that is far from tidy but fits perfectly with the volatile twists and turns of the taciturn characters.

What makes Duck Hunting such a praiseworthy film (Biček’s second fiction short) is his consistency of form and his skill in straddling the line between giving and withholding information, which results in a work whose meaning we can deduce but which is nonetheless never transparent. “Why did you do it?” Robi screams at his father in the present. Unlike the main character in Biček’s stunning 2013 début feature, Class Enemy (Razredni sovražnik), the father here does not have a chance or is not eloquent enough to defend his actions, but for a long time we don’t even know what those actions are, and we never know with certainty.

Sliding effortlessly between past and present, the film further underscores the connection between the two by repeating one or two scenes in the same spaces in different time periods.

Another bold move was the decision to have no music in the film, which emphasises the silences. Along with the very grainy texture of the images obtained with a 16mm camera, this film’s audiovisuals splendidly complement and reflect the brutality of (what we gather is) the central situation. Although the opening scene drags on a little too long, and the acting in that scene is not particularly great, the rest of the film keeps us absolutely spellbound as it moves between times and from subtle gesture to sudden violence, and it is to Biček’s credit that his 23 minutes contain more ambiguity than most films and fewer words than most scenes.

About Elly (2009)

About EllyIran

4.5*
Director:
Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter:
Asghar Farhadi
Director of Photography:
Hossein Jafarian

Running time: 114 minutes

Original title: درباره الی‎
Transliterated title: Darbareye Elly

Because her name is right there in the title, we do all we can in the first act to understand who this mysterious young woman is who has been invited along to the beach by a few other families. She reveals little about her own life, except for being the teacher of the one family’s daughter, but whenever she is not looking, the others talk about her, and in particular they ask the one bachelor in the group, Ahmad, how he is getting along with her.

The woman who invited her, and who seems to be the closest to her, is Sepideh, who gives the impression of being in control of the group and makes decisions she expects everyone else to obey and agree with. But once disaster strikes and Elly goes missing, Sepideh admits she doesn’t even know Elly’s full name. And whatever other details about her life she has, she refuses to share with the group.

Sepideh is a very unlikeable character, at first because she assumes to know best for the increasingly awkward Elly, who wants to leave but is told not to by Sepideh, and then because she obviously knows much more than she is letting on but instead keeps critical information to herself in the name of “honouring” Elly, who has disappeared.

The comparison may seem appropriate, but this is far from being a Persian version of L’Avventura. Whereas Antonioni’s film was much more cynical about human relationships and their longevity even in the face of tragedy, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (whose next film, A Separation, would bring him to worldwide attention), About Elly revels in the opposing forces in such a group of individuals who from the outside may seem to constitute a very orderly unit.

Sepideh plays a central role in this enduring tension, as even when she tells her side of the story, or Elly’s story, decisions are made to protect others by continuing the lies, or modifying the official story, which inevitably ends up too weak to be credible and makes these people, most of whom have the purest intentions, look like outright liars. One person who doesn’t lie is the straight-talking Peyman (played by Peiman Ma’adi, who starred as one of the two main characters in A Separation), and the dynamics between him and his wife, Shohreh, throughout the film are fascinating to watch.

Peyman’s son, Arash, nearly drowns when Elly is supposed to watch over him. Meanwhile, she is busy flying a kite on the very same beach. She seems happy but also completely disconnected from her responsibility to watch over the children. Granted, this momentary happiness only masks the pain she feels at having been told to stay put by Sepideh, and in an extended sequence of shots showing her smiling face in close-up as she runs with the kite across the beach, the background completely blurred, we realise her inner world has taken over completely.

The circumstances surrounding Arash’s near-drowning remain murky, as the adults only have the children as witnesses and they are still trying to find more details about Elly’s whereabouts. Shortly before her disappearance, she had said she wanted to leave and go back to Tehran, even if she had to accomplish that on foot. But would she have left her bag and her phone, and not even said goodbye to anyone there? That is the question that hangs above the proceedings for most of the film.

We are not only interested in whether Elly has died or not, but what her disappearance reveals about the relationships between the characters as a result of this tragic event, and while Sepideh certainly bears most of the blame for instigating a sequence of events that turns toxic, the temporary solutions found by family and friends to try and protect her or themselves are always insufficient, insofar as they are always only half-truths or lies.

The image of a car stuck in the wet sand on the beach ends the film, and it is a fitting visual metaphor for the sticky territory in which the characters have unwittingly become entangled because of a few simple missteps, despite Peyman’s best efforts to get to the truth and tell the truth to those who deserve to know it.

One such person is someone very close to Elly, who is much more sympathetic than we are led to believe, and his appearance late in the film proves once more that it is better to know the truth than to hear stories told by others, however close they may appear to be to the tales they are telling.

About Elly is a very engaging ensemble piece that has a handful of characters who are frustrating to watch because we know they are behaving in a way that slows down the gathering of information, but in the end, however much we disagree with their methods, we can understand why they are acting in such a way. Farhadi gives us tiny glimpses of individual characters doing things on their own, isolated from other people, to suggest joy or secrecy or intense pain. He does this without spending excessive energy to highlight a fact easily surmised from the film itself: This is a simple story rendered complex by the actions of people who have their reasons, and the mix of reasons and individuals almost inevitably leads to tension of which the consequences are often impossible to predict.

A Last Wish (2008)

Una ultima voluntadArgentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Berger
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 9 minutes

Original title: Una última voluntad

Argentine filmmaker Marco Berger’s very first short film has as much ambiguity as anything he would make in the future, and unlike so-called gay cinema in general, but exactly like the rest of Berger’s oeuvre, this film lacks any kind of overt anguish over sexuality.

In A Last Wish (Una última voluntad), set deep in a forest at an unknown time in history, we find a soldier, already captured by a foreign army, about to be executed by a firing squad. He is granted one last wish, and we learn this wish has to be executed as a final courtesy to a man who is about to die, as long as it is possible, takes less than five minutes to complete, and does not nullify his imminent  execution.

The final wish of the man, credited as The Condemned (Manuel Vignau), who is never named, is very simple: a kiss. Besides the unusual request that he makes (we surmise it is unusual, because the general doesn’t understand how such a request can be granted if the company consists exclusively of men), he also has a sense of mystery about him because we never hear him speak. He conveys his wish to an officer in charge, who shares it with the others.

Initially, there is some confusion, but when a thorough examination of the manual reveals there is no legal reason to deny the request, a solution must be found. Who will kiss him? The officers decide to draw straws, or matches, to be more precise, and thereby determine the other participant in the execution of this act, credited as The Chosen Soldier (played by Lucas Ferraro, who also starred opposite Vignau in Berger’s début feature, Plan B).

The short is barely 7 minutes long, and its cinematography does not exactly elicit enthusiasm, but there is a moment towards the end, once the man has been executed, that we get a pensive 360-degree pan that reveals the true purpose of the film: It is not about what happens (whether the prisoner is executed or not, whether he is kissed or not) what about the effect these events, and in particular that kiss, have on the officer who likely did not expect to share such an intimate moment with his enemy that day.

The 360-degree pan reveals The Condemned and The Chosen Soldier, both entirely still, and the relationship between the two in this scene is striking on Ferraro’s face. He doesn’t quite know what to make of everything that has happened, and neither do we, but we know that one instant had an effect on him, and that sometimes love can hit you harder than violence.

Berger’s film is about a moment of discovery, not of sexuality but of intimacy, and although the setup is terribly contrived and the visuals are mostly uninteresting, his story as a framing device for a powerful moment that is sure to linger with you.

I Killed My Mother (2009)

J'ai tue ma mereCanada

4*
Director:
Xavier Dolan
Screenwriter:
Xavier Dolan
Director of Photography:
Stéphanie Weber-Biron
Running time: 96 minutes

Original title: J’ai tué ma mère

If Antoine Doinel was bipolar and gay, perhaps his story would have looked a little like that of Hubert Minel.

His French counterpart — and particularly his actions in Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) —  is indirectly referenced at many turns in the film, the interview with a psychologist in Truffaut’s film here becoming a self-shot black-and-white confessional that is repeated throughout.

Hubert is in his late teens and lives with his mother, whom he obviously despises. Over time, we get the impression this is not just everyday conflict between a teenager and his parent(s), but Hubert has other issues, some related to him not having told his mother he is gay, others perhaps having more to do with his mental health.

This début film of Dolan, who plays Hubert and was only 19 years old when he directed this self-written screenplay in the autumn of 2008, is as artistic as it is intense. The mother-son couple spend much of their time either engaged in passive-aggressive interaction or screaming at each other (sometimes Dolan starts speaking and doesn’t stop, while the camera stays on him for an extended period of time), but while the mother, played by television actress Anne Dorval, often tries to shrug her shoulders at her child’s behaviour, the petulant Hubert goes from one extreme to the other in hopes of manipulating his mother into letting him do his own thing.

That approach is not bearing much fruit, and one day at school when he receives an assignment to question his mother about the family’s financial situation, he tells the teacher his mother has died. This is a line taken directly from Truffaut’s directorial début, The 400 Blows, which was also about a single child, although Truffaut’s Antoine had a much friendlier school environment.

Dolan’s use of his camera is striking, although there are moments when it crosses the threshold of pretension, as in his character’s supposedly self-shot confessional tapes — which nonetheless are not entirely static, proving someone else was behind the lens — which have his face cut off at the nose, showing us only his bottom half of his face, sometimes for an extended period of time.

What is truly amazing to watch is the one scene of intimacy, which takes place one day when Hubert and his boyfriend Antonin go to paint Antonin’s mother’s office by dripping paint on the walls à la Jackson Pollock. Noir désir’s “Vive la Fête” pulses on the soundtrack while the scene itself is constructed in many parts that include close-ups of paint added in many colours onto the wall, dripping, running from top to bottom in various patterns, shots of Hubert and Antonin eagerly throwing paint on the wall, a beautiful close-up of the colourful cans of paint, shot vertically from above, and ultimately the action of the two boys making out and having sex, their arms stained in different colours, sometimes accelerated, sometimes slowed down.

 The jump cuts of the paint dripping down the walls are reminiscent of Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso), in which the master’s artwork grows in front of our eyes from one separate artwork to the next. But Dolan, not interested in the final product, has his eye on the beautiful, artistic mobility of the paint in motion.

The transition between scenes is where the pretension sometimes sneaks in to fragment the film into more pieces than necessary, given the division established early on between scenes taking place in black-and-white and colour, respectively. Shots without any motion, a kind of photographic still life,  are inserted instead of a cut or a dissolve in order to add rhythm where none is actually needed, even though the exercise of create motion with static images is admittedly fundamental to the cinematic art form.

Dolan’s sense for visual creativity, thinking outside the box, is breathtaking, from adding text onscreen instead of cutting to a close-up or a voice-over, to using a deliberate continuity error (faux raccord) when he puts a cigarette in his mouth in his bedroom before we cut to his face and he is in black-and-white — confessing in the bathroom that the doesn’t love his mother the way a son should love his mother.

He also makes the world his own, not unlike Tarantino, by actually changing the opening quotation from the original. Even before the opening credits, we see a quotation from Guy de Maupassant, from his novel Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death), from which he excises Maupassant’s contention that love for one’s mother is as natural as it is to live, and he changes “on ne s’aperçoit de toute la profondeur des racines de cet amour qu’au moment de la séparation dernière” to “on ne prend conscience de toute la profondeur des racines de cet amour qu’au moment de la séparation dernière.” The change is subtle and doesn’t change the meaning to any degree, but it is interesting nonetheless and suggests that Dolan, while respecting the conventions (many other authors, from de Musset to Choderlos de Laclos, are cited throughout the film by means of their works), also allows himself to make them his own.

But while the relationship at first seems toxic, unsalvageable, we slowly recognise that Dolan focuses on some particularly hurtful moments for the mother, and treats them with the respect they deserve. What is equally interesting is the framing of the two individuals: Whether in the car or at the dinner table, they are very often framed in a two-shot, sitting next to each other instead of opposite each other. While this pretends they are on the same level, equally vulnerable to our gaze, it also shows they are not making eye contact and therefore communication is obstructed.

Hubert’s confessions about his feelings and his mother’s true feelings about her situation, whether silently whispered to herself or in a moment of unleashing pent-up anger of years over the phone, we get a good sense for both of these characters and learn to accept the difficulty they face getting to know and accept each other. In this way, Dolan shows an acute sense for showing us the many sides of his characters and giving human drama a human face, and makes his entry onto the world stage with elegance and insight.

The Watch (2008)

El relojArgentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Berger
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 14 minutes

Original title: El reloj

Argentinian director Marco Berger’s very first short film has so much ambiguous sexual tension it is surprising the film wasn’t remade and included in the anthology film in which he participated with fellow countryman Marcelo Mónaco, Sexual Tension: Volatile.

Two teenagers meet on a curb at sunset, waiting for a bus that never comes. It’s a wonderful image that sums up the rest of the film very well. The one, Juan Pablo, is talkative and very sure of himself, looking straight at the other, so much so he makes the already-shy boy even more nervous. Juan Pablo says he’s sure they know each other from school, but they don’t. Then he says the other boy is called Maxi, but he’s not. He’s Javier.

In a flashback it is revealed they went on a double date once, but only for the sake of their former girlfriends, and they didn’t really talk to each other.

Juan Pablo invites Javier home, where Javier meets Juan Pablo’s cousin (this moment is repeated in Berger’s own El Primo episode in Sexual Tension: Volatile, in a way that shows how much the director’s sense for visual tension has developed in four years). The boys watch television before going to bed, where they lie next to each other in their underwear without doing anything.

In the end, there is no big spark or moment of realisation, but there are short glances, and it seems obvious the boys are curious, even if not necessarily in each other.

Although the cast is small, the action minimal and the locations few, the film is a treat, as we get suggestions of depth in these characters whose intentions are elusive without they themselves being distant or unreadable. The chatty Juan Pablo, in particular, played by Nahuel Viale,  is a very interesting figure as he tries his best to attract the handsome but timid Javier without really knowing what all of this is leading to. Every time he suggests they do something (go home with him, have something to drink, go to bed), Javier simply goes along. That says as much about Javier’s intentions or curiosities as it does about Juan Pablo’s interest.

The short interaction has no real meat to it, and the appearance of Juan Pablo’s mother feels out of place because of it is so brief, but the film doesn’t leave us unsatisfied. It may not be transparent, and even the meaning of its title is not particularly self-evident (nor is that of the hot-air balloon in the opening shot), but the hesitation of making a fantasy a reality and the implicit but silent acquiescence that is visible to the viewer but not so obvious to the characters themselves speak to a very human quality that is highly commendable; it also informs nearly all of Berger’s subsequent films.