Not Coming to a Theater Near You   2008 in Review

Jerzy and his Band of Loners by Ian Johnston

“I’m back!”

Jerzy Skolimowski’s ex-pugilist challenge to critics at Cannes

If there is one thing that has marked 2008 cinematically for me it’s been the return of Jerzy Skolimowski with Four Nights with Anna, his first film since Ferdydurke in 1991. This is something to celebrate in a year with little to excite or exhilarate—in fact, I find it difficult to name any single film as "best" of the year. Curiously, almost all my favourite films of 2008 were seen over a six-week period in November and December, which meant that for most of the year new films have had very little to offer; instead it’s been more rewarding to make discoveries through DVD box sets of older films like those of Hiroshi Shimizu (1930s and 40s) or Kiju Yoshida (1960s).

With new films for me so often there’s been a choice between two unattractive alternatives. On the one hand there are commercial cinema’s lumbering behemoths, the tediously overweight and overlong likes of The Dark Knight—and it’s simply beyond me how some critics have taken seriously and positively this muddled farrago of a film. On the other hand we have films of the contemporary international film festival aesthetic, stripped of drama and even pretty much of a narrative, characterised above all by use of the long take, minimal dialogue, and a slow pace.

Now, I’m as much of an enthusiast of the long-take art movie as anyone, but the way this has settled into a predictable pattern of filmmaking, producing films that are only seen in—and increasingly funded by—film festivals, seems to me a questionable development. Certainly, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a film like The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain from the Chilean director José Luis Torres Leiva. It’s finely paced (if slow), there’s a strong sense of location and the interplay of landscape and weather (hence the title), and there’s a pleasing refusal to allow the characters to explain themselves psychologically through dialogue. There is a depth to these characters, but all that is offered to us is a surface that is resistant to our probing deeper, that holds back something in reserve and keeps something secret from the insistent gaze of the camera.

In its own terms The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain is successful, but the problem is how predictable this kind of filmmaking has become and how essentially limited it is in its ambitions. (On top of that, it has no hope of connecting with a non-cinephile audience.) It also seems to be limiting the ways young filmmakers express themselves. Last year, for example, I saw a number of interesting Malaysian films – Ho Yu-Hang’s Rain Dogs, Tan Chui Mui’s Love Conquers All, Woo Ming Jin’s The Elephant and the Sea – all of which seemed to me to suffer from a too-ready adoption of this film festival art movie aesthetic, in ways that failed to develop the films’ initial premises. It’s in this context that Skolimowski’s return with Four Nights with Anna seems such a fruitful one. In this film Skolimowski superbly balances aesthetic concerns and the demands of his narrative: on the one hand the dark colour tones that are so in keeping with the physical location and the emotional mood of the film, aligned with a time-twisting narrative that slowly reveals its secrets; on the other the focus on the central character of Leon, a focus that is brought to bear on the central themes of guilt, attempted redemption, unrequited and impossible love, and ultimate loneliness and isolation; all of this leavened with an initially mystifying mixture of sombre introspection, black humour, and blunt slapstick.

For these last 17 years Skolimowski seems to have been living in Malibu, painting and writing poetry. I’ve no idea how true this may be, but it offers a potent image of withdrawal from the communal activity of filmmaking, of an isolated artist reduced to working alone, and this image is then reworked in Four Nights with Anna’s story of the lonely Leon’s romantic obsession. By a strange coincidence this lone figure has occurred in variant forms again and again in films that I’ve admired from 2008. In the case of Four Nights with Anna or Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (far and away the best American film of the year) the films map out a loner’s path that remains essentially unchanged from beginning to end. In Wendy’s case the loss of her dog Lucy only reinforces the precariousness and isolation of her social position, which in fact deteriorates over the course of the film, leaving her with even less than at the start. There’s a subtle but incisive political force to Reichardt’s film, a rare willingness to take as the subject for a film a sub-class that is increasingly losing out economically. But at the same time Reichardt is neither downbeat miserabilist nor despairing. Her filmmaking is simple and unadorned (but never uncrafted—as is made clear from the long opening tracking shot), and it works to portray Wendy with the greatest possible sympathy. Moreover, Michelle Williams’ superb performance projects an ultimate self-sufficiency, integrity, and refusal to relent unequalled since the Dardennes’ Rosetta.

This reference to the Dardennes is appropriate enough as 2008 saw a new film from brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, The Silence of Lorna. One of the year’s best films, it received a perplexingly muted (when not simply unenthusiastic) response from critics. It’s almost as if, with the run of Rosetta, The Son, and The Child, they’ve set the bar too high and people can’t acknowledge the excellence of the work when they see it. There’s also been a lack of appreciation for the extent to which the brothers have rung changes on their recognisable brand of realism. The move from their home turf of Seraing to the larger city of Liège has meant a move from their usual range of characters struggling to make their way at the edges of criminality. Instead, we are now in a world of genuine, lethally violent criminals, among whom the Jérémie Renier character is really out of his depth. Stylistically, the film is more restrained, with an abandonment of the obsessive pursuit by hand-held camera of the main protagonist. Instead, the film’s most striking stylistic feature is a structural one, a startling ellipsis at the centre of the narrative. And there is an explicit recourse to fantasy – as if this is the only escape from Lorna’s predicament, worse than that of any of the Dardennes’ earlier protagonists – with Lorna’s fantasy pregnancy and her final fairy-tale refuge in a forest cabin.

By the end Lorna is reduced to as isolated a figure as Leon or Wendy in an image that is repeated through the films of 2008. In Lucrecia Martel’s remarkable (and, by too many critics, misunderstood or underappreciated) The Headless Woman her main character is thrown by a trivial but traumatic road mishap into a similarly isolated position, while at the same time being constantly surrounded by a bustling crowd of family, relatives and friends. In Hunger Steve McQueen ignores the obvious specific political issue at hand (Irish Republicanism) in favour of a focus on individual bodies in pain, first, in minor key, the pained, bruised knuckles of prison guard Ray Lohan, then the suffering emaciated body of Bobby Sands as he almost literally vanishes before our eyes in Michael Fassbender’s disturbing (but was it really necessary?) Method tour de force. In 24 City Jia Zhang-ke presents a series of single interviewees, alone in front of the camera, the atomised losers of China’s new post-socialist, neo-liberal economic order. And in Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn even the couple formed out of romantic love, the ultimate act of union and togetherness, cannot hold, fracturing apart into madness on the one side and suicide on the other.

Perhaps solipsism is the ultimate sign of our times, the Facebook age whose virtual community masks a real physical disconnectedness. Thirty years ago Alain Tanner could offer the Left’s sense of post-68 defeat an image of collectivity, a band of characters even sharing the first two letters of their names. The utopian collective might dissolve but there was no doubt about the filmmakers’ and the characters’ belief in the potential for personal, political, and social change. It’s a different world today, where there’s been a loss of faith in the possibility of collective action changing events for the better. Hong Sang-soo may cast a critical eye in his brilliant Night and Day on yet another blind, self-centred Korean male but there’s no sense that anything has been learnt in the process. In Of Time and the City Terence Davies (in another major director’s return after too many years’ absence) positively revels in his solipsism. This film-essay on his native Liverpool is carried along by Davies’ almost incessant voice-over musings, which work to stress the director’s feelings of antagonism to and disassociation from the contemporary world. And even an ensemble family drama like Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (a great return to form, and far more profound and thoughtful than Arnaud Desplechin’s superficially attractive A Christmas Tale) the family doesn’t hold. The family legacy is broken up and the family itself dispersed around the world. In the film’s final scene when the teenage daughter climbs over a wall with her boyfriend to wander through a field on their own, this should register as an image of hope brought by a new generation—but the two are after all escaping from their own peers, and underlying it all is a profound sense of loss.

A re-cap of the films considered here, with links:



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