Friday 25 March 2022

Streaming on SBS On Demand and on Foxtel - Janice Tong đŸŽ„ - examines STAY STILL (Elisa Mishto, Germany, 2019) and THE ART DEALER (François Margolin, France, 2015)

Natalia Belitski as the yellow rubber glove donning Julie,
Stay Still

(Editor’s Note: Somehow this contribution from Janice Tong didn’t emerge from the inbox in its proper time. I’m publishing it as submitted. Some of Janice’s thoughts on the French Film Festival are already published here and here)

A little late in starting this year’s film selection, though that’s not from a lack of good films to write about. In fact, I’ve had the pleasure to see 37 films thus far and am very much looking forward to the French Film Festival, which started this week. But more on that once I get a few of the festival’s films under my belt. 


To kick off this ‘season’, here’s an introduction to two small but exquisite films for you to look up and savour.


To enter Elisa Mishto’s debut feature, Stay Still (Stillsehen), is to enter into a world where the measure between action and inaction, right or wrong, sanity or insanity needs to be discarded. These boundaries drawn by invisible guiding rules, invented over the centuries are at best permeable. It just takes us a little while to remember this: think of the white lines painted on the road, it ispossible to drive over them, you simply don’t.


Natalia Belitski (above) is wonderfully quirky as Julie, a woman who claims to ‘stay still’ but who does anything but. We first meet her when she’s lying on her bed, she had donned on her trademark yellow rubber gloves, the kind you wear when you’re doing housework, like when you’re washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom; for her, she wears them as though they define her, as though they exemplify her identity. Next, we see her shopping for said gloves, by the dozens, and after a pick-me-up-session of quick hot car sex with a guy who crashed his shopping trolley into hers, and then promptly set fire to his car; we enter into her world. Stay still, my friend, stay still.


How do we appropriate a phrase that describes a feeling to which we are all bound – we stay still whilst the world is in motion and chaos, we stay still to observe and think, to take in and to resist – into a film? 


Stillstehen  is a word that conjures up motionlessness and at the same time, its opposite. The metaphor of stillness depends on the energy we put into being inert. Think about it. When whispered, the words ‘stay still’ can serve as a warning: to abandon action, to cease movement, to still advancement; to remain, as you are, fixed in spot, rooted to the ground (in case you are caught out). In doing so, you are forgoing a future to which you’re destined. To resist movement is harder than one realises.


After setting fire to the car, and fire is the running metaphor here, of transfiguration, and the gift to rise from the ashes like a phoenix – in order to be reborn, Julie volunteers to be incarcerated in an institution – this is an old shoe she keeps slipping back into for comfort; it is also something she needs to resist. For her, the institution is like a spa retreat, think of the one that Valeria Bruni Tedeschi checked into in the film Like Crazy (2016). Being in the Villa Biondi psychiatric hospital in Tuscany is like establishing your life in a room at a historic villa; or think David Duchovny, as Carrie Bradshaw’s high school crush, Jeremy, in an episode of Sex and the City where it was described (by Samantha) that: getting a spot at Juno Spears in Connecticut (he had voluntarily checked himself into) was harder than being a card-carrying member of the Soho House (the downtown ‘it’ place to be).


Having written the above, perhaps it'd be good to note that this film does not mock mental disorders, in fact, it's a film that enables us to examine life and its complexities philosophically and sometimes, if we’re lucky, we even get to laugh at its absurdities. 


Attraction and the dreamic, Luisa-Celine Gaffron Stay Still

There are many beautiful moments in Stillstehen, in particular, two poignant scenes between its two main characters, Julie and the nurse Agnes, who is played by the wonderful Luisa-CĂ©line Gaffron last reviewed in And Tomorrow the Entire World (2020). My favourite is towards the beginning of the film, where we see an out-of-focus Julie who then walks towards camera. She looks mesmerised; we hear an equally mesmerising song. We then get to see her POV – a hypnotic slo-mo performance on stage by Agnes, the garish tinselled curtains a perfect backdrop for her spotlit dance. The lyricism of Wong Kar-wai is present here, creating a mood that makes the film intimate to the viewer, half-saturnine, ruminative and drugged – it leaves you desiring more, despite the song telling us (and the character, Julie) that this is ‘not what you wanted, not what you had in mind’.


More of the wonderful Luisa-Celine Gaffron as Agnes in a
hypnotic sequence, Stay Still

What makes us gravitate towards another? And why to a specific person and not to another? How am I to write about the mysteries of attraction, or to claim an understanding and hone my articulation of it? Doing it well would mean to unveil its secret and by this, break the spell it casts over us, over lovers, over the enigmatic. And who would want that?


Whilst the denouement is inevitable, (both times or perhaps even three times) films are not about predictability – just as when you’re listening to a piece of music, your anticipation of what comes next is not the same as when it actually arrives, or the way the sound is navigated to get there. And the wait for this arrival is as sweet as when we hear those notes that satisfy or surprise us.


Belitski’s performance as Julie is finely modulated – this film was shot a year after the TV series Perfume (2018), where she was one of the main characters – her persona from Perfume extends its ghostly presence here. Julie is ridiculously elliptical, sometimes to an annoying degree, in fact, she is highly flawed in judgement and attitude, but is not without heart or conscience. And Agnes, her carer, needs care. There are no chance encounters – and the two make a great pair – thrown into a situation where humanity, friendship and perhaps even desire ride pillion to freedom, and that, sits at the cusp of what society deems as madness. 

 Katrin (Katharina Schuttler) and the rest of the gang, Stay Still

The second scene that I love, I will not spoil by describing it – where Italy-born director, Elisa Mishto’s clever sleight of hand at Julie’s mother’s house tugs at our hearts and our imaginations. Mishto’s eye and the Francesco Di Giacomocinematography charm us into a world where a detachment from reality only means to be lulled into living a more intimate and seductive reality – this other world is a means of erasing the burden of real life. Although, when the real erupts, through Katrin, (played by Katharina SchĂŒttler— you may have seen her in the TV series Beneath the Surface (2021) - if not, please do yourself a favour and watch it!), it delivers ruinous consequences. 


This atmospheric film comes with a killer soundtrack by Apparat, and an excellent collection of grungy music, though not sourced from the 90s but are just as good as The Jesus and Mary Chainor Cowboy Junkies; the names SwansGhostpoet,WU LYFLea Porcelain have now been noted, bought and included in my playlist. 


The second film proposes a somewhat different, and obliquely opposite perspective; in that once the real presents its truth to us, it is impossible to not be affected by it.  In fact, truth forces you to act, you are obliged to do so – even if you choose to remain passive, your act is inherent in your passivity, and this turning away, in some ways, is more violent then confronting the truth. François Margolin’s The Art Dealer is based on real-life events; but the way it is told, is like solving the cryptic puzzle it presents to us. Multilayered and rhizomatic, the story and the history of it bifurcates and fractures into fictional narratives and hidden truths.

Anna Sigalevitch as Esther, in search of the truth, The Art Dealer


Anna Sigalevitch is Esther, a mother, wife, journalist, but above all, the granddaughter of a renowned art collector and art dealer, Jean Stegman. One day, her father Simon, wonderfully acted by François BerlĂ©and– it’s so good to see François in fine form; I’ve missed his more active years in cinema, it’s been a while since Chabrol’s  A Girl Cut in Two (2007) – visits Esther and her auctioneer husband Melchior (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing– those who know me would know how much I adore Do-do). Simon disappears in her apartment for a long moment, too long, Esther goes in search of him and he is found in a darkened room, gazing, transfixed and highly affected, at a painting of two leopards, that Melchior had brought home from a deceased estate the day prior. And so, with this very poignant moment, our story begins. 

Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Melchior, exploring the
provenance of all things, The Art Dealer


The past is an uninhabitable place; uninhabitable, because those who seek it out become relics of themselves, and those who delve inside its continent become lost within its labyrinthine corridors. The path forward is temporal rather than spatial, and whilst the advantage is that this ‘place’ can be visited at any time, but its visiting hours are perhaps not always of your own choosing. 

François Berléand and Anna Sigalevitch as father and
daughter, The Art Dealer


What Esther uncovers are secrets that have been passed down three generations, her grandfather’s and those who were present at the time of the Second World War; her father’s generation who have come out of the war and whose buried memories would rather be forgotten; and finally, her own generation who face anew what it means to have a family and a history; and with that, their rightful claim to memories, secrets and heritage.


There have been a few films in past 10 years or so, that dealt with stolen artwork by the Nazis: Woman in Gold (2015) and The Monuments Men (2014). Margolin’sThe Art Dealer comes from a similar ilk: to bring into the open the troubling lack of decisive action in returning stolen art to their rightful families. France’s own ambiguous stance is being critiqued here. But Magolin’s film is also unlike the others in its sensitive weaving of the very personal quest that so compels its seeker, and in this case, Esther, to uncover the truth. Even if it means that along the way, she forgets her family, abandons her job, is cut off by her elders and winds up nearly losing herself in its mystery. Her search is a profound mix of collective and fictitious memories, forgotten and forged identities and the question of one’s moral code.

Niels Schneider as Klaus Vogel... real or imagined?, The Art Dealer


In The Art Dealer, the truth peels back in a dance between the imaginary (the mind is the master to unlocking memories, even those that do not belong to you), found footages, and others’ recollections. The historic and imagined role of Klaus Vogel played by Niels Schneider is the heady mix born of this union. Esther’s drive in unlocking the intrigue, of why the painting delivered such an emotional response for her father, must start from understanding her own history, and the search for the provenance of the painting is actually a search for her own provenance – to untangle the truth from the dead ends, to read into the fiction the characters of her own family members, to search for her own future through the uninhabitable, and the ineffable.


Stay Still  is currently showing on SBS on Demand and The Art Dealer  is available on Binge or Foxtel.

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