Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews, SIFF

SIFF Diary – Week 1

There was a time when I threw myself into SIFF, seeing 50, 60, sometimes over 70 films between the first days of press screenings and the closing night gala (that’s still far short of some passholders who watch over 100 films over the course of the fest). Those days are over for many reasons, not the least of which is that San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which now plays out smack dab in the middle of SIFF and pulls me out of town for nearly a week. This year I expect to see something between 10 and 15 films scheduled between my day job and writing deadlines, and while that means I miss a lot of interesting films, the upside is that I treasure those films I do get to see and I have more time to ruminate over them. Here are thoughts on some of the films I saw the first. No press screenings for me this year. These were all seen with festival audiences.

Audiences split on First Reformed (US) but critics are raving and I think it’s Paul Schrader’s finest and richest film since Affliction. It also defies expectations of an American psychological drama by following a style more similar to his most beloved filmmakers: Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky among them. Ethan Hawke digs deep to play the pastor of a small Albany church, a historic site with a dwindling congregation, who has embraced the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family, but his past wounds are far from healed. When he counsels a troubled ecological activist in despair, unresolved feelings are reignited. Schrader was a film critic before making films and First Reformed is something of a crossroads of two loves: the grace and spiritual struggles of Transcendental Cinema (the name of his first book) and the anxieties and violence of film noir. Taxi Driver is constantly referenced by critics, but this is distillation of themes he’s been exploring throughout his career in such films as Light Sleeper and Affliction. This is his purest distillation of those ideas, visually and narratively, and while general audiences may find it cold and impenetrable, I find it deep and resonant, a work of raw emotion, serene style, and amazing grace.

This one will open in theaters and Ethan Hawke will attend the final weekend of SIFF for an onstage Q&A covering his career (with special attention, one hopes, on this film). I have a full review coming to Noir Now Playing.

I think Mohammad Rasoulof is one of the great filmmakers in Iran now, and certainly the most brazenly critical of his government. A Man of Integrity (Iran) is not as poetic as the allegorical The White Meadows or as sophisticated and challenging as Manuscripts Don’t Burn, which presented the Iranian government as interchangeable with the Mafia, but it makes no bones about its position that Iran is a society built on graft and bribes and relationships, and that trying to do things above board and legal is a losing game in a society that is stacked against anyone who isn’t playing by their rules. My official accreditation to this year’s SIFF is through Noir City, for whom I’m covering noir-related films, and this is as noir as they come, a dark tale of an honest fish farmer (newcomer Reza Akhlaghirad) whose devotion to living a moral life and refusal to participate in the economy of bribes and the bureaucracy of false documents brings one disaster after another onto his family. And while there is some dark pleasure in watching him take on his tormenters at their own game, Rasoulof never pretends that it is a solution with any measure of justice.

The Children Act (UK) – Emma Thompson is superb as the British justice who specializes in child law and cases involving the welfare of minors. She commits all to the job and over the years has given up her personal life to take on the responsibility, to the point that she has disengaged from her marriage and barely even communicates with her husband (Stanley Tucci), who loves her but really, really needs some physical affection. Or at least her attention for a few moments. Her new case involves a 17-year-old boy with leukemia who needs a blood transfusion but belongs to a church that forbids it and she ends up establishing a brief connection with the young man that she immediately disconnects from once the case is over. But he doesn’t. Ian McEwan adapts his own novel and Richard Eyre (Iris and Notes on a Scandal and former director of London’s National Theater) directs, creating an intimacy for a drama about a devoted judge who has distanced herself from intimacy and seemingly lost the capacity to understand how emotion cannot simply be swept away with reason.

Stacy Martin and Louis Garrel as Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Luc Godard

Godard Mon Amour (France) is a conundrum for a fan of Jean-Luc Godard, but then Godard himself is something of conundrum himself: a self-conscious cinematic genius who cut ties with old friends for failing to be revolutionary, a political filmmaker whose treatment of women on screen ranged from the admirable to the exploitative, an outsider in France who embraced oppressed people around the world yet has a history of troubling anti-Semitic remarks. He could also be quite the asshole, something this film takes on directly. Adapted from Anne Wiazemsky’s autobiographical novel, it’s more about the man (played by Louis Garrel) behind the artist as seen by his dewy, bubbly young wife (Stacy Martin), a woman almost 20 years his junior. Director Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist) is a talented cinematic mimic and who is adept at the art of parody and pastiche. What he’s not is a deep thinker or a cinematic firebrand so when he evokes the surface qualities of Godard, he shows how hollow it is without any real meaning behind it. For a film about a passionate artist and an aspiring political filmmaker struggling to challenge the bourgeois modes of filmmaking with a meaningful revolutionary alternative, it fails to connect with his struggle or even his art. But it’s also an irreverent film that sees Godard from Wiazemsky’s perspective (sort of) and finds humor in his contradictions and his desperation to be taken seriously by the young students leading the May 1968. It may be about Godard (and in many ways the culture of rebellion boiling over around him) but as a filmmaker Hazanavicius appropriates Godard techniques (as well as references to Wajda, Bergman, and Woody Allen) for a film closer to the whimsy and playfulness of Francois Truffaut. Judge that as you will. I find it minor but fun

Bloody Milk (France) opens on a delicious image: dairy farmer Pierre (Swann Arlaud) waking up in a house crowded with milk cows, pushing his way through the lazy herd to get to the kitchen have his morning coffee surrounded by the blank bovine faces. It’s all a dream, of course, and I saw it as symbolic of a life overwhelmed by his livelihood. That may well indeed be one underlying meaning but later in the film, when a fellow dairy farmer shows off his automated machinery and electronic monitoring on his smartphone app, Pierre asks a telling question: “Are your cows happy?” As Pierre takes drastic action to hide a virulent bovine disease taking root in his herd, it becomes obvious that his 30 cows aren’t livestock, they are pets, friends, almost family, and he can’t bear to see them slaughtered by authorities even if it means the contagion spreading through the area. The story could easily shift into thriller territory but first-time feature filmmaker Hubert Charuel (the son of dairy farmers) keeps the focus on Pierre and toys with the conventions of the genre—the repercussions of one illegal act leads to more and more crimes to maintain the cover-up—to explore Pierre’s desperation to hold on to his livelihood, his herd, and the only life he’s ever known.