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Friday, 2 September 2016

MIFF 2016. - Fifth instalment of Shaun Heenan's daily diary

Day Nine
My first film of day nine was another early morning session at ACMI, which I came to learn was a slot intended largely for school trips. I skipped one of these sessions back on day two, but this time I had already seen the film playing across the road at the Forum, so I decided to grin and bear it, and watched the film with a few hundred children. Behaviour-wise, they were better than I expected, but this was still easily the most disrupted session of my festival (or at least on equal footing with the other similar session on my final day at MIFF). I’ve learned a thing or two about which sessions to skip the next time I come to Melbourne.

What’s in the Darkness (Yichun Wang, China, 2015)
I suspect the director intends this film to be read as a scathing indictment of China’s police force, since that’s the shape it takes overall. Moment to moment, though, it plays as yet another underwhelming coming of age tale, following a teenage girl and her classmates. Her incompetent father is a detective tasked with locating a serial killer targeting young women in the area. A Hollywood film might task the teenager with solving the murder herself, but that’s not the case here. The murders serve mostly as an ominous background to a film about regular school life. Not quite recommended.

The Turning Forest (Oscar Raby, UK/Australia, 2016)
This year’s film festivals have played host to a variety of virtual reality sessions aimed at introducing the newest consumer version of the technology to a wider audience. This is a 10-minute animated short presented in 3D VR on an Oculus Rift, which is the cheaper of two high-end PC-based VR headsets now available. The interactive film plays out in first person, allowing you to turn a full 360 degrees at all times, and has you exploring a forest until you meet a dragon, which takes you for a ride on its back. This technology is so, so close to making sense for a home user, questions of available content aside. True immersion is hampered by the thick, heavy cord which hangs from the back of the device on your head. My understanding is that making the device wireless would cause the image to lag slightly behind your movement, potentially causing motion sickness, but once that problem is solved (and it will be) this technology could become very exciting.

Being 17 (André Téchiné, France, 2016)
Another coming of age story, though a better one. Co-written by Girlhood (2014) director Céline Sciamma, this film follows Damien and Tom, teen boys who regularly clash violently at school. Tom’s mother becomes sick, and Damien’s mother (a doctor) invites Tom to stay at their house. Regular festival attendees will know where the boys’ relationship is going, even if they haven’t seen the ‘LGBTIQ’ tag on MIFF’s genre list for the film. Strong performances and quality dialogue make this an above-average film, despite a lingering sense of familiarity and predictability. Recommended.

The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France, 2016)
The latest from the Dardennes brothers was considered a mild disappointment by most critics at Cannes, but a below-average Dardennes film is still an exciting piece of cinema. Adèle Haenel’s performance is a real highlight here, as she manages to convey strong emotional reactions hidden behind a stone-faced exterior. She plays Jenny, a young doctor who finds herself drowning in guilt after she refuses after-hours access to a woman who turns up dead the next morning. She searches for answers, not necessarily to unmask a killer, but simply to learn the right name to write on the girl’s tombstone. Another quality film from a pair of masterful directors, displaying once more their knack for powerfully exploring human behavior. Recommended.

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, France, 2016)
I ended up seeing Personal Shopper twice at MIFF, which is something I’ve never done before. It’s not nearly as good as the previous Olivier Assayas/Kristen Stewart collaboration Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), but it’s still one of my favourite films of the year, for reasons I’m not sure I can adequately explain. Stewart plays (stay with me here) a psychic medium who isn’t actually sure she believes in ghosts who works as a shopping assistant to a globe-trotting model. While searching for the spirit of her dead brother, she gets involved in what is almost certainly the single longest SMS conversation ever fully portrayed on a cinema screen, while coming to realise she deeply envies the lifestyle of those around her. The film is part supernatural horror, part techno-thriller, part treatise on grief and part fashion show. It’s an absolute mess, and I loved it. Highly recommended.

Day Ten
Thithi (Raam Reddy, India, 2016)
I was a little sleepy in this one, first thing in the morning, so my opinion on it should be considered shaky advice at best. That said, it’s a long, slow-moving film that didn’t do a great job of keeping me awake. The title refers to a funeral celebration held eleven days after a death: a custom specific to the regional south of India. The deceased in this case is Century Gowda, named for his great age, who spends the first five minutes loudly criticizing everybody who enters his vision, then immediately keels over. The film finds low-key humour in the arguments between the Gowda’s descendants as they disagree over parts of the ceremony. It’s funny, but not funny enough, and for far too long. Not recommended.

As I Open My Eyes (Leyla Bouzid, France/Tunisia/Belgium/UAE, 2015)
A moving film set in the days leading up to the Tunisian Revolution which started the Arab Spring, shown from the perspective of a teenage girl crying out for change in her country. Baya Medhaffer gives a great performance as Farah, who has the grades to become a doctor, but instead hopes for a career in music. She sings for a protest band despite her mother’s wishes, standing up to a regime only too willing to crush her for it. The film looks at a whole country’s desperation through the lens of a single life. The music is a real highlight. Highly recommended.

The Commune (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 2016)
Set in the 1970s, the film follows architecture professor Erik who inherits a house too large to live in with his small family, and so invites a selection of friends and newcomers to share the house with him. Not content to share his house, Erik begins to share himself with a pretty blonde student. Trine Dyrholm is the highlight as Erik’s wife Anna, who puts on a brave face and pretends this isn’t destroying her. Either an oddly-funny drama or an oddly-depressing comedy, this seems like a step back to familiar territory for Vinterberg after a quick dalliance with English-language literary adaptations (which he is also rather good at) with Far From the Madding Crowd (2015). Recommended.

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Germany, 2016)
Another one from Cannes, this is my new favourite Jim Jarmusch film, and one of my favourite films of the year. Paterson is both the name of a city in New Jersey and the name of a bus driver who lives there, played by a charmingly sedate Adam Driver. The film shows us a week in Paterson’s life as he drives his route, writes freeform poetry and spends time with his artistically-inclined girlfriend, his stubborn dog and the regulars at the local bar. It’s a very structured film, and each segment is so enjoyable that we look forward to the next time each location comes around. Jarmusch’s characters are so pleasant to spend time with that they don’t really need to do anything to make it a great film. Highly recommended.

Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, Romania/France, 2016)

The lesser of Romania’s two Cannes competition entries is still a solid film, following the now-familiar national filmic tradition of mocking bureaucracy and corruption amongst the powerful. Well-respected doctor Romeo (Adrian Titieni) drops his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) off near her school and goes to visit his mistress, only to learn Eliza was sexually assaulted quickly after he left. Worried this will affect her during her final exams, Romeo starts asking the interconnected higher-ups of the community to pull strings for his daughter. This is an impressive examination of personal morals in a world where it’s frighteningly easy to fall into corruption. It’s a step down from Mungiu’s best work, but it’s still rather good. Recommended.

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