Tambylles (2012)

By deliberately avoiding all forms of confrontation, this very uneven hourlong graduation film turns its main character’s already undramatic existence into rigid stasis.

TambyllesCzech Republic
2*

Director:
Michal Hogenauer

Screenwriters:
Michal Hogenauer

Markéta Jindřichová
Director of Photography:
Adam Stretti

Running time: 58 minutes

Tambylles (a title that translates as Therewasaforest), a one-hour film that Michal Hogenauer made as his FAMU graduate film, is as uncomfortable to watch as its main character, an anonymous young guy from a small Czech town who has recently been released from a juvenile detention centre. Stripped down to very minimalist scenes and a lead actor who always has to contain his emotions, this film is not particularly viewer-friendly.

At first, we seem to be watching a documentary: An increasingly annoying filmmaker is interviewing people and asking persistent, provocative questions. But slowly, as the credibility of the staging becomes more and more suspicious, we realise this is a film within a film, with the fictional filmmaker presented inside more static, well-composed images. Luckily for us, director Hogenauer’s preoccupation with form is done away with more or less as soon as this fictional filmmaker’s attempts to provoke confrontation fail to deliver and he leaves the central plot.

These well-composed images are certainly one of the highlights of the experience of watching Tambylles, although I found myself tuning out very often because there is so little to tune into. Though the fictional filmmaker tried to construct the first 15 minutes of the film in a way so every interview is interrupted in order to create a cliffhanger, our anticipation constantly heightened, we find out very little about the central character and the events that sent him to the Big House. “Everyone one should know what he did”, says one character. Yes, they should, but what is it?

Given the fact this central character says so very little, becomes more and more isolated from society and from us and isn’t even given a name, he does not represent something universal – rather, he fades out in every scene to which he is supposed to bring some substance, or interest.

Nonetheless, actor Ivan Říha has captivating eyes that pull the viewer toward the screen. Despite his character’s visible solitude, a completely unbelievable domestic situation – not just the lack of chemistry between him and his parents but a lack of any feeling whatsoever – and a lack of much to hold on to in terms of character traits, we certainly want to find out more, and he offers the promise of something more. Unfortunately, he never fulfils that promise.

It is difficult to become involved in the development of a film that is going nowhere. We keep waiting for confrontations that Hogenauer instead chooses to avoid. The confrontation (provoked by the fictional filmmaker) between him and the mother of his victim is wordless and actionless; the confrontation between him and the fictional filmmaker consists of him grabbing the camera and storming off, though this action is elided by means of a cut; the confrontation between him and his boss, who discovers his secret, is avoided when he storms off, again; and a final suicidal confrontation is shown without any sound.

Minimalism is one thing, but deliberate obstinance is another. Říha’s face (the only thing the character has going for him) can only interest us for a limited time, and that time is much shorter than the film’s 58-minute length.

Hogenauer shows great promise with his camera, but the images he creates cannot inspire us to sympathise with a character who encounters resistance everywhere he goes. Moreover, we have no real clue about his past and don’t get an insight into his feelings in the present. Along the way, a character played by Hogenauer himself steals away the girl who might have brought this guy out of his shell. A fitting metaphor.

La Jetée (1962)

La Jetée, Chris Marker’s classic short film about time travel, is as intelligent, as unconventional and as emotionally engaging today as it was upon its release in 1962.

La JetéeFrance
4*

Director:
Chris Marker

Screenwriter:
Chris Marker

Director of Photography:
Chris Marker

Running time: 28 minutes

Perhaps best known today as the short film that inspired Terry Gilliam to make 12 Monkeys, Chris Marker’s La Jetée is very unconventional as a moving picture precisely because the pictures do not move. Unlike the overwhelming majority of films out there, of which movement is a defining feature, this 28-minute work of science-fiction employs photographs to tell its story, and the reason is quite simple: These are supposed to be fragments of memory, and memories are experiences that we almost never remember in their entirety but rather in snippets.

The first few moments already hint at the distorted nature of the world we are about to encounter when the opening credits themselves are altered, albeit very subtly: Upon expressing thanks to the research department at the national public broadcaster, the Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF), the credits change momentarily from “Service de la Recherche de la R.T.F.” to “Service de la Trouvaille de la R.T.F.”. In French, the word “trouvaille” means a “(lucky) find”, and the fact that most viewers might only notice this change during a second or a third viewing underscores the notion that there is more beneath the surface than we may realise at first.

Indeed, the entire story depends on our impression of reality, constructed on the basis of fragmented memories, that in the end is revealed to be defective in a crucial way that the main character (and we) realises all too late.

The film has almost no diegetic sounds but does have a narrator. This narrator’s voice belongs to Jean Négroni, whose surname is curiously, though perhaps intentionally, written without the requisite diacritical marks in the opening credits.

Set mostly in a dystopian environment (what used to be Paris) after the end of the Third World War, a nameless man (played by Davos Hanich), is haunted by an image burnt into his memory as a child. Shortly before the outbreak of the war that would destroy most of mankind, he was standing on the viewing pier (the “jetty” in the title) at Orly International Airport in Paris. There, he saw a woman, but the rest of his memory is blurred by a feeling of violence and the perception that someone had died.

Today, huddled up in subterranean passageways under the Palais de Chaillot because the world above is too radioactive for human life, there are victors and victims, and the former are conducting experiments on the latter: The prisoners have to imagine a moment from their past so intensely that they are transported back and can eventually bring help from the future into the present. But there are many failed attempts, with the experiment’s subjects either dying or losing their minds.

With the image of the woman seared into his brain, the main character is successful at making the past vibrate with such life that it becomes a living memory, although not without pain. And all the while, in a nod to the events of the Second World War, which had ended barely 17 years before La Jetée‘s release, the people conducting the experiment are ominously whispering to each other in German.

When the man starts forming images in his head that appear to correspond to the peacefulness of the past, the narrator insists on calling them “real”: “a real bedroom”, “real children”, “real birds”, “real cats” and, deliberately anticlimactically, “real graves”. And yet, there is a firm suspicion on our part that these are merely imaginary projections, most importantly because there is no movement. Another ackowledgement of the likely fictitious status of the events comes when the narrator explains that the man “never knows whether he moves towards her, or is pushed, whether he’s made it all up, or is only dreaming”.

But this is where the intelligence of Marker’s chosen form starts to reveal itself, because before long, the man and the woman from his past find themselves in a museum with stuffed animals. By this stage, the viewer has already started to ascribe movement to the film’s frozen images, and therefore the exercise now engenders a cognitive animation of the immobile animals, too, which produces a frisson and a feeling of confusion, not unlike what the main character is experiencing. This bewilderment is particularly palpable when we see a close-up of a shark baring its teeth right next to the couple. At another point, in a timeless space filled with statues, the narrator also describes his memory as a kind of museum.

The final development in La Jetée, during which the man is sent to the future, is a little ridiculous and compares badly with the rest of the film, as expressionless, alienoid humans with medallion-like objects on their pale foreheads learn of the desperation in the present.

The ending will leave the viewer breathless, because at the end of a brief but brilliant action montage, insofar as that label may be applied in this case, the smallest revelations suddenly hit us like a brick wall and leave us pulverised with despair. The final image is held just long enough for us to take in but not fully digest the gravity of the narrator’s explicit closing of the circle of life – and with it, of hope.

With a Little Patience (2007)

With its focus on the point of view of a single character, With a Little Patience anticipates the thematic and visual concerns of its director’s feature film début by eight years.

with-a-little-patience-turelemHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes

Screenwriters:
László Nemes

Timea Varkonyi
Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 11 minutes

Original title: Türelem

László Nemes should be the only director ever allowed to tell stories of the Holocaust. Just like his feature film début, Son of Saul, released in 2015, his first short film shot in 35mm, With a Little Patience, made eight years earlier, is remarkably intense in its focus on a single character within the context of Jewish extermination during the Second World War. In this wordless, 11-minute film consisting of a single take, an anonymous office worker first appears to us when she emerges from soft focus, just as Saul Kaminski does in the opening seconds of Son of Saul.

An epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, specifically the poem’s curtain-raising “Burial of the Dead” section, figures on a black screen even before the first image: “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence. / Öd’ und leer das Meer.” These lines perfectly frame the misery and desperation that follow shortly afterwards.

Although the office worker appears in the frame almost immediately when the film opens, the first object that is in focus is the object handed to her by an unknown individual: a brooch. It takes some time before we come to realise the significance of this piece of jewellery, and in the interim, the silence takes on an air of mystery and tension that finally breaks with tremendous force, even from far away, in the closing moments.

As the narrative unspools, a nagging sense of misfortune hangs in the air, created in large part by the dark interior where most of the film is set. The setting is nondescript. The space is clearly an office of some sort, but the anonymous woman whom we follow for most of the film does not speak to anyone, and the only words spoken to her are a whisper, their meaning unknown to us. Furthermore, as Nemes would do again in Son of Saul, the focus is so shallow that the actions of all except this woman are presented as nebulous blurs of movement.

Very little happens, although it is obvious the woman is hiding something, and all along, we wonder, “Where did this brooch come from, and why is she clearly not supposed to have it?”

It is only at the very end – when the camera’s perspective changes, and in an unfortunate moment of directorial timidity, we leave the confines of the main character as the focus is racked to show events much farther away – that we grasp the spatio-temporal context of the film: a death camp somewhere on Nazi-occupied territory during the Second World War. The brooch is one of the pieces of jewellery that belonged to a Jewish prisoner, and this woman dressed in white, calmly and expressionlessly doing clerical work amid the grotesque carnage occurring just offscreen, is materially benefitting in her own small way from the subjugation, incarceration and liquidation of the Jews.

But this is but one interpretation.

While some may whimsically use the title to describe the lack of any robust dramatic development during the first two-thirds, this considerable part of the film actually works to heighten the impact of the final revelation on the viewer. By the time the chilling closing minutes roll around, the sudden shift in tone produces a visceral kick to the gut.

In With a Little Patience, Nemes offers a clear vision of his cinematic principles and a firm foundation on which he would ultimately go on to build the modern-day masterpiece that is Son of Saul. Tipping his hat to masters of the art form that include Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr, Nemes uses a carefully choreographed single take to exquisite effect and proves his is a voice that will reverberate through the industry in the years to come.

Diarchy (2010)

Short film with skeletal cast of characters is ambiguous, tense and gorgeous.

diarchiaItaly
4*

Director:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Screenwriter:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Director of Photography:
Daria D’Antonio

Running time: 20 minutes

Original title: Diarchia

Rich half-siblings (one of whom is played by Louis Garrel) and the consequential visit of a stranger immediately bring to mind the provocative 2003 film by Bernando Bertolucci, The Dreamers, but the short film Diarchia, by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino (another Italian), is something quite different.

For one thing, whereas The Dreamers was animated in large part by garrulous discussions about philosophy and the cinema, with no small focus on sexual intimacy, Filomarino strives here for one thing only: tension. Having arrived at the grandiose summer villa of his friend Luc, the Italian Giano, clearly an outsider to this world of opulence, albeit faded opulence, does not want to fight back when Luc starts landing punches on him. But eventually, of course, he lashes out as way of standing up for himself and when he hits Luc, the Frenchman tumbles into the stairwell and breaks his neck.

Now, Giano has to clean up the mess by dragging the limp body from one room to the next so that Luc’s anonymous half-sister (whose line of work is unknown, even to Luc) does not catch him in flagrante delicto. These scenes are tense but not without some gallows humour that could have made Hitchcock proud, especially when Giano drives away from the villa with the cold body of Luc in the passenger seat, his eyes wide open and a big smile on his face. What happens next is unexpected and requires some analysis: Luc’s smile suddenly grows bigger, and he turns his head to look out of window, before a cut to black.

Having spent the previous 10-15 minutes in the company of Giano, who is concerned but in total control and shows very little if any anxiety at the prospect of being found out, this final moment initially seems like a condescending spit in our collective face, like those “it was all just a dream” epiphanies. But dig a little deeper, and the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, even though together they form a picture that may be abstract at best.

Let’s look at what the film is actually about. On the surface, which is certainly the area that ought to interest and engage the viewer the most, it is about a visit gone wrong, an unhappy coincidence, a death, a cover-up and an escape. The first half is playful but with at least one character a bit out of his depth, we also feel slightly awkward, especially when Luc starts punching Giano — softly at first, then harder and harder, almost like a bully. The second half is stressful but not exactly thrilling stuff, as Giano never breaks a sweat and even makes a point of staring at the half-sister moments after he accidentally killed Luc. There is a slight desire, but it is likely for the position she occupies and the life she lives rather than her looks.

When Giano is on the verge of leaving, the half-sister asks him whether he would like to join them for a ski trip, and there is a moment when, despite the obvious insanity of accepting, he seems to be considering the proposition. And although the title is never mentioned in the film, one has to take its connotations of tradition, and of the ruler as one of two equals, into account. “Diarchy” refers to the system of government that has two rulers instead of one. The small nations of Andorra and San Marino are two of the best-known examples.

Although the film is not very generous with its facts, we can surmise that Giano is not from the same social class as Luc and his half-sister, although it is unclear how he got to meet Luc and why he was invited along to their private residence, especially as we gradually realize that Luc and Giano do not know each other very well. This issue of class does not get much attention, but it might offer one of the best points of entry into an interpretation of the film; after all, the very first shot of the film is taken from the front of Luc’s car, decked out with the immediately recognizable logo of Mercedes-Benz.

The film is bookended by two scenes in Luc’s car. In the first scene, he is driving, and in the last scene, Giano is driving, although he only gets to drive because he has, by the looks of it, fatally punched his way into Luc’s position. And yet, when director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino suddenly reveals that this may just be a fantasy, he also brilliantly undercuts the possibility of Giano ever driving a Mercedes-Benz anywhere besides his own daydreams.

The camera moves around effortlessly inside the villa, and the technical credits are impeccable. These 20 minutes offer the viewer a great deal to ponder, especially after the first viewing, and except for a strange encounter with a fox, the second viewing will confirm that this is not a one-trick pony.