Human After All [ANNETTE]

Annette

Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Leos Carax

Yes, that opening. But not just “So May We Start,” which is as rousing, cheeky, and entrancing a first song as a film such as this could ask for. The film properly opens — after the far sillier spoken introduction — with a brief snatch of the French folk song “Au clair de la lune,” which leads into a shot of the outside of a Los Angeles studio at night. This image is rapidly overtaken by feedback manifested visually by red soundwaves, a motif carried into the studio itself, where musicians prepare to record, each burst of noise causing the camera to flicker, as shots are briefly overlaid on each other. This finally leads to Leos Carax calling over his daughter Nastya in French before introducing the first of many proper Sparks recordings.

Leaving aside the obvious narrative implications of a song called “By the light of the moon,” the credits specify that this is the “first recording of a human voice,” and that collision of traditions within a given medium course through Annette‘s veins. French and American, primitive paper recordings and high-tech digital audio, silent and sound cinema: these are the terms on which Carax is working, in which material reality coexists side-by-side with the unreal. In that sense, Annette’s central puppet deftly straddles the line between the two: a physical object that always feels uncanny.

The same could very much be said of Sparks’s music: I’ve listened to very little of their work otherwise, but the music on its own, while frequently catchy or at the very least an earworm, works here in large part because of its slipperiness, its integration with the dialogue. Henry’s first, abrasive show is a perfect introduction: slipping into no less than three, perhaps four songs over the course of about ten minutes, all moving with such abandon that it’s difficult to tell whether the songs are part of the act or part of the musical component. Of course, that slipperiness is inherent to the confrontations, arguments, and declarations of affections that speckle this film in musical form. But even more disorientingly, the actors’ intonations and recitations of dialogue often land in a phantom zone between speech and song, where it is throughly muddled whether a given line is meant to be part of a song or not.

Such ambiguity often doesn’t extend to the level of narrative, however, for better or worse. Despite its often extravagant scale, what with its globe-hopping scale, constant media intrusion, and apparently years-spanning timeline, Annette is ultimately a small, intimate film, detailing the fallout of the relationships of four broken people, though this is doled out in fits and spurts. Even with all the ruptures and dreamlike moments, there’s a fidelity to emotion that remains paramount, a belief in the tragedy of bonds ruptured by the strength of personal histories and forceful personalities.

Of course, that’s where Adam Driver comes in. The effect of his final scenes, hollowed out and eaten alive by his own actions, is at once startling and entirely in keeping with the arc of his performance. Throughout, he remains prowling and magnetic, and Carax’s camera responds in kind, circling him with the same intent watchfulness that Driver never lets up on. His voice is equally as implacable: sometimes rumbling and portentous, other times high and quavering, in a way wholly unpredictable.

Implicit in this willful disorientation of viewer’s expectations, at least with something that chooses not to establish a baseline aesthetic or reality, is a certain unevenness, only exacerbated by the fragmentation caused by some musical sequences as the film proceeds towards its last trajectory. Some of the treatment of the media, for example, feels straight out of the more parodic moments of Clouds of Sils Maria, and at certain points it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how far the musical concept can be pushed. But more often, Carax lands on images and moments that stun: operatic deaths overlaid on a rushing motorcycle ride, unusually restive shots of a house slowly decaying, and above all the central storm, which combines the thoroughly artificial and archaic rear-projection with water spilling out across the set. Such dichotomies are the lifeblood of Annette: the sacred and the profane, the violent and the tender; Carax incorporates all of these into sequences that stubbornly refuse to remain one or the other, and the finale, which openly confronts the devices that had powered the film prior by stripping them away to just two voices singing, feels pitch perfect.

Daughter of the Good Earth [THE WORKS AND DAYS (OF TAYOKO SHIOJIRI IN THE SHIOTANI BASIN)]

The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by C.W. Winter & Anders Edström

Of course, the conception of an extended film like The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is inseparable from the experience of watching it, and that is true to an immense degree here, but one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about this film came immediately following the film, during the Q&A given by co-director C.W. Winter. He described the conception of the film as stemming from a documentary that he and co-director Anders Edström had been planning to make chronicling the last stretch of time in the life of Shiojiri Junji, the eponymous Tayoko’s husband and Edström’s father-in-law, who passed away roughly a week before they were planning to fly to Japan. After the funeral — shot and included in the film — Winter and Edström came up with the idea to make this film over the next year of theirs, Tayoko’s, and the village’s lives. The process was essentially conceived to act as both catharsis and do-over for Tayoko, who deeply regretted that the last year of Junji’s life was one of the only times that they had ever fought; Winter and Edström would give her the space to say the words she never had the chance to say, do the things she wished she could have done.

This information is present in substantive reviews and interviews of the film (like Lawrence Garcia’s review for Reverse Shot and Mark Peranson’s interview for Cinema Scope), but I hadn’t read them and so I experienced the peculiar feeling of recontextualizing close to an entire day of experience in the moment and yet, any worry about misinterpreting the film without this crucial information almost seems to fade away when confronted by the particulars of this mammoth work of intimacy, so concerned it is with operating according to its own drumbeat, sans annotation or inflection outside of what can be conveyed with film grammar, performance, structure, and other such cinematic devices.

There are a great deal of those in The Works and Days, which runs eight hours across five chapters of unequal length, each devoted to a season (beginning in winter), and designed to be shown in four parts with two fifteen-minute intermissions and one hour-long lunch break, in emulation of the work day. Within this span, aside from the slow death of Junji, which comes more and more to the fore as the film moves through its second half, attempts at establishing narrative or concrete throughlines are almost completely elided, so much so that the relationships of the forty-some characters within this are astonishingly tenuous and difficult to grasp. But this is very much part of Winter and Edström’s project, a kind of deep immersion founded upon the hybrid documentary-fiction form so en vogue in the current festival trends.

What quickly becomes apparent is that the film manages to downplay even those elements: each part begins with a black screen accompanied by a dense soundscape of natural sounds; Winter says that such a conceit is designed to acclimate the viewer to the change in season heralded by these interludes, and which additionally serves as magnificent breathers, pauses that feel compelling in the darkness of the theater. But the lack of human presence in what may very well be the majority of this film arises not long afterwards; what initially begins as seemingly standard establishing shots of nature reveals itself as a vital leg on which The Works and Days stands. The images of trees, skies, horizons, plants, streams, mountains, and exteriors are themselves not long: the film itself relies little on extended takes — which when they do appear are focused on conversation and storytelling — and the nature shots are even shorter, typically lasting in rhythmic fashion around five or six seconds. However, the sheer volume of them is impressed upon, though it isn’t applied in a punishing fashion, varying and interweaving with the actors’ performances.

And it is important that these be recognized as performances, and as a narrative, albeit one constructed with much the same process as a Hong Sang-soo film, if he was inclined to shoot thousands of shots of nature: scenes were written the night before or the day of their shooting, various obstacles were incorporated in the narrative, though the scattered, open, and almost improvisatory process of filming meant that the scenes ended up being filmed entirely achronologically. Of course, Pedro Costa might be a better comparison point: Edström had been regularly visiting the village for 21 years as a family member prior to beginning filming, and the process was undertaken in close collaboration with Shiojiri herself, along with her family and fellow inhabitants; it’s worth noting that Winter and Edström themselves have a fairly significant presence onscreen as family members, not as directors.

Still, Costa’s work, wedded at the hip to his intense chiaroscuro and desolate settings as it is, feels far different from what Winter and Edström are achieving here, and thus the length returns to the fore. At such a length, what is intended as a fictionalized recreation of the previous year of a woman’s life metamorphosizes into a near-documentary telling of the processes of living and cultivating, in a manner not dissimilar at all from the use of time (if not shot) duration as Jeanne Dielman, or, more perversely, The Mother and the Whore. What is, as in Rivette and Godard’s famous quotes, implicit in each film’s document of its creation and its actors becomes in the viewer’s mind explicit.

This isn’t to say that an uninflected non-fiction retelling was Winter and Edström’s goal at all. Indeed, The Works and Days is replete with devices that are intended to, if not break the viewer’s experience, then to question it, to augment the sense of a created world with blatant fictions and interventions. The casting of Kase Ryō, one of the preeminent cineastes’ actors of the past two decades, is certainly prominent, though he apparently plays a character with a different surname. But the more pervasive and fascinating break stems from Winter and Edström’s penchant for shooting in near-total darkness, where they trust that the Blackmagic’s digital sensor will pick up something that varies the black expanse. This often results in some truly stunning moments of abstraction, where a few pinpricks of light are all that can be seen, which hover in extended shots. Such moments could function in a similar way to the proliferation of images of nature, but they pop out of the texture with their sheer uniqueness.

Such openness to experimentation and variety is what makes The Works and Days such a rewarding and surprising experience. This even extends to the dedication to a single location, heralded by the title, which is disrupted by a train trip to Kyoto and, in one of the wildest production stories I’ve ever heard, a phone call to Sweden, in which two cameras rolling simultaneously capture an actual phone call taking place nearly 5000 miles apart. Two moments, one involving a sublimely uncanny dissolve effect and the other telling a story only in subtitles, come and go without acknowledgment. And of course, there is that soundtrack, whose dense, enveloping nature-based sounds belie the thorough mixing and sculpting done in post-production.

Winter and Edström’s use of these sequences doesn’t disrupt the astonishing mood sculpted throughout the film. Though they have disavowed the slow cinema label, it might be more accurate to say that the concept doesn’t rely solely on long takes and is more about a certain ethos, for which the emphasis on nature and work surely applies. Indeed, one scene early in the second part feels illustrative of what is so entrancing about The Works and Days, in which Tayoko walks through a series of rooms, as the film cuts to a different shot on each door closing. The artifice of the film is revealed in a moment as mundane as the rest of the film’s actions; though the film was frequently shot with two cameras, there are too many rooms for it to be a continuous action. The two impulses within the film are evoked simultaneously: the almost iconoclastic tendency to show the rhythm of the scene, aesthetic be damned, and the contemplative style, focusing in on one action and how it can say so much about its subject.

I realize now that I’ve said little about that subject, and suffice it to say that Tayoko is remarkable, in large part because of, even under such emotional circumstances, how willing she is to be part of the ensemble, which ranges from the quiet to the rowdy in a way that feels utterly true. Some of her most emotional moments come when she reads some of the diary entries she had actually written during the prior year; her reading is off-the-cuff, as if she is coming up with them in the moment. It is in the pauses of thinking, just before the stream of thoughts resume, that The Works and Days finds its focus, its reason for being, and it is glorious.

The Ultimate Trip [LA FLOR]

“But in that case, the entire magical, mysterious world in which I move would be shattered in a moment. And that’s not possible.”
– Colin, Out 1

“And who is this kind of Sultan who appears to have devoted his life to them?”
– Gatto, La Flor

At first glance, La Flor, Mariano Llinás’ magnum opus created in collaboration with the actresses Pilar Gamboa, Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes, and Valeria Correa, lacks the unity —structurally, tonally — that typifies so many of the greatest films of all time. An unashamed anthology film in every way aside from its conception by a single director, it spans no less than six genres/modes of filmmaking across its six episodes; counting the seven fifteen-minute intermissions and a luxurious forty-minute end-credit sequence, it runs 868 minutes (over 14 and a half hours), and takes as its very aim the exploration and co-opting of these disparate forms. Each part has its own flavor — a mummy B-movie, a musical “with a touch of mystery,” a spy movie (which itself spans multiple genres across five hours), an unclassifiable hybrid that piles something like four metafictions upon one another, a reimagining of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, and a obscured visualization of an apocryphal text about 19th-century women held captive by Native Americans, respectively – starring the four actresses in all but the fifth episode in wildly varying roles. As might be expected, the process of making this film took ten years, shot episode-by-episode and piecemeal amid other films and across multiple continents. As part of the concept, the first four episodes tell stories that have no endings, the fifth tells a complete story fashioned from a famously unfinished film, and the sixth has an ending but no beginning.

Understandably, a project like this has never been made before, and in many ways it stands alone amongst other films; even something as sprawling as Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour Out 1, one of the films most commonly invoked in connection with this work — which in many (but not all) ways feels like its true spiritual successor — was shot in just six weeks. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a less outwardly focused all-timer: Out 1, for all its extended theatrical rehearsals and narrative digressions, emanates an overwhelming dread and fear in post-’68 Paris; the famously bifurcated shoot of Mulholland Dr. only enhanced the strange seductive pull of that dream factory known as Hollywood. So what makes La Flor the overwhelming, all-encompassing, electrifying masterpiece that it is?

Of course, one must start with the experience — I saw it in the largely de rigeur formulation of three parts, over the weekend that comprised the Locarno in Los Angeles 2019 festival — as with most films past a certain runtime. In a sense, La Flor both initially precludes but eventually invites a sense of complete and total discovery: the genres are laid out in Llinás’s introduction at the start of the film, giving the viewer a general road-map of the destination, complete with the diagram that gives the film its name. However, as with many of the best, most fascinating films, the journey is considerably stranger than initial appearances would suggest. Part of this is due to the slightly outmoded or schlocky nature of the first three genres in the film, especially in the context of world arthouse cinema, which consequently leads to a certain adjustment in expectations regarding rhythm — this is a far cry from slow cinema in every way except temporal duration — and how narratively “conventional” Llinás’s film might end up actually being. As might be expected, however, Llinás’s sensibility, while deeply committed to the intentions of genre in a way that proves vital for the film’s mastery, is too protean to play it all entirely like the films of each genre’s heyday, something which only becomes clearer in the later episodes: the Lewtonian mummy movie is inflected with a Cat People-esque subplot, the mystery mentioned in connection with the musical turns out to be a scientific cabal obsessed with using scorpion venom as a possible elixir for eternal youth, and so on. This approach, of course, is in keeping with Llinás’s previous film from 2008, the great four-hour Historias extraordinarias, which used its starting narratives as a jumping-off point to delve into a whole wealth of perspectives and stories.

What sets La Flor apart, however, is its recognition of the infinite possibilities that come with what might appear to be the rigid framework of genre. For all the invention of Historias extraordinarias — whose general sensibility is reprised multiple times throughout this film, most notably in the second half of episode 4 — it was bound more-or-less to the “real world,” and its concerns were strictly with the recognizable. No such compulsion is present here, and unexpected divergences arise, not just in the macro premise but in the micro: the sudden emergence of a character to the forefront of a narrative, a transformation of a certain group of characters that takes place with little prior warning. More importantly, this conception of a film world as something that is designed to be disrupted accomplishes the rare feat of pairing two distinctly contrasting things — continually upending the viewer’s conception of the world even as they recognize it is a world in which such things can (and logically should happen) — which are both fully thrilling in their own right, but produce an even greater frisson when placed in concert.

It might be useful to invoke Out 1 once more here. While Rivette’s film, certainly has more of an explicitly political bent built into the characters’ (mostly) unspoken reckoning with the current sociopolitical state, it shares that same fundamental mode of exploration. Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Colin and Juliet Berto’s Frédérique are perhaps the most visible instigators, and their investigative presence is echoed at various points in La Flor, most notably with Casterman in episode 3 and Gatto in episode 4. But to suggest that the other characters involved aren’t attempting a similar form of exploration would be inaccurate; in many ways such exploration is the attempt to make sense of their world, whether in an intellectual, artistic, or other such pursuit. Thus, the extended theatrical exercises explore both in a literal sense for the viewer, testing — pleasurably for some including myself, negatively for many others — the bounds of duration and observation, and in a more ideological sense, with each motion conjuring its own strange reflection and inflection.

As it is for one masterpiece, so it is for the other. The creative relationship that eventually created La Flor stemmed from Llinás attending a play in 2006 put on by Gamboa, Carricajo, Paredes, and Correa as part of their theater troupe Piel de Lava (which is still operating today). Inspired by the quintet’s shared love for fiction in almost primoridial form, Llinás’s intention was, according to his Cinema Scope interview with Jordan Cronk, to “make pictures with them a genre in itself. So that’s when I had the idea to make one picture that would be all the pictures — every picture.”

Despite these origins, La Flor conspicuously eschews the overtly theatrical moments of Out 1 — which, among other things, is driven by a bevy of similarly transcendent performances, although they stem from multiple traditions including cinema (Léaud) and theater and involve a larger, more consistently characterized cast — or the Shakespeare-riffing oeuvre of Llinás’s compatriot Matías Piñeiro, who (along with nearly every figure in Argentine cinema) helped out on the film and whose films have featured Paredes and Carricajo. Instead, Llinás’s concerns appear to remain consistently cinematic; though certain other artistic traditions are invoked like the music industry in episode 2, and he himself describes a strong affinity with painting, such influences are inherently associated with the artifice that the cinematic apparatus provides.

This extends to Llinás’s visual schema, which favors extreme close-ups in shallow focus, frequently abstracting the background, both items and faces, into a textured blur. This approach, which remains more-or-less constant for at least the first three episodes, and opens up only slightly in the rest of the film, was adopted in large part due to the limited budget, offering the potential for suggesting things like killer cats, explosions, and the like. But it also feels truly indicative of the sense of exploration involved in the film; the rack focus is the most obvious element, holding on a solitary face in the very immediate foreground for an unconventionally long time before shifting to the background to allow the viewer, previously waiting in anticipation, to see the reaction. At every single juncture, the viewer is invited in to participate in this strange and long endeavor, to piece together both the moment-and-moment interplay and the larger connections that La Flor weaves.

This expansive view translates to the film, which both pushes boundaries and consciously returns to past “outdated” forms, exploring both the concrete past and ephemeral future of cinema. That the central actresses had little cinematic experience (Llinás: “most of them had not even shot one picture. So we had to make their career. This picture would be their career. You’ve seen their lives, and through these images you now understand their process.”) only furthers this sense of a past (invoked in the long-standing collaboration the actresses had) and future (the episodes that these women and Llinás will continue to make, and which the viewer knows are to come) existing simultaneously.

Even the actual text of the film bears this out: in episode 3, each of the four women’s characters gets her own “origin” story. Though they all end up as spies, their narratives leading up to the point when the viewer first meets them differ drastically in both narrative and generic treatment: Gamboa’s is a traditional spy plot, complete with double and triple-agents; Correa’s is a South American revolutionary legend; Paredes’ is one of doomed, unspoken attraction between two assassins, and incidentally one of the best love stories I’ve ever seen; and Carricajo’s is an arduous mole hunt through Siberia. Each of them is brought to embody the force of these genres, and in placing them as part of the same group synthesizes them into a heterogenous blend; as with the episodes, the individual stories fascinate and move, but their impact is exponential when placed together. One of the many unspoken arguments brought forth by La Flor, and one of the most moving, is that each of these modes, whether it be a B-movie or a remake of one of the most iconic films by one of the greatest directors, has its place and should be recognized for its genuine worth in the cinema.

For this reason, though it is certainly possible to do so, it seems unwise to watch any of these in total isolation. Their cumulative impact operates on an emotional level, whether it comes in the levity of the first scene in episode 4, where the actresses (playing a version of themselves) openly bemoan the French dialogue they had to speak in the previous episode (both in La Flor and in La Araña, the film within the film) or in the genuine appreciation of Llinás’s personal appearances, as he thanks the audience for their patience in watching his film. Perhaps most open-hearted of all is the final passage of episode 4, where the four actresses appear by themselves amid nature. Scored to the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, it is no simple portraiture: each of them are obscured in some way, whether it be by their distance from the camera, their facing away from it, or the foliage in the way. It is, like many of the greatest moments in the film, revealing, mysterious, slightly embarrassing, and transcendent all at once. This, perhaps, is the greatest achievement of La Flor: a 14-hour film that lacks any trace of insincerity, pompousness, or bloat, instead emerging in every single moment as a monument to a vision and to four immensely talented actresses. May it last forever.