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Jake Wilson is a bit flummoxed by the film that generated the longest queue at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival (the 50th); but it helps prove there is an audience out there for serious cinema.

One of the weirdest sights at the 2001 Melbourne Film Festival wasn't playing on any screen. This was the long, long queue stretching out of the Village cinemas on Bourke St, right down to the end of the block, made up entirely of people waiting to see…hang on…the new Michael Haneke film? Haneke has a deserved reputation as one of the most austere and punishing of European art film directors; his last film to make it to these shores, Funny Games, was frankly an attack on the comfortable arthouse audience, who'd now turned out in droves to be insulted all over again. Clearly there was something unusual happening here.

I'm still trying to decide exactly how I feel about The Piano Teacher, a thriller-like portrait of a sexually disturbed woman that's as gripping and precise a piece of storytelling as anything by, say, Roman Polanski or Claude Chabrol. I'm also not sure how to interpret the sudden wide audience for Haneke's provocations – except that he's obviously tapping into the ongoing popular fascination with films about sexual dysfunction and humiliation (e.g. the remarkable success of Todd Solondz's Happiness). Haneke's highly self-conscious film has a lot to say about these 'hot-button' issues (for example, the whole question of pornography and its increasing presence in many people's lives) and deserves extended discussion.

“radically anti-melodramatic”

Having said that, it was a relief that there were also sell-out crowds for Jafar Panahi's The Circle – hardly an upbeat film, but it felt relatively warm and open-ended after The Piano Teacher. One of the distinctive things about The Circle is Panahi's unusual refusal to treat the women he films as sexual objects - by leaving many details unexplained, he allows them a certain privacy and autonomy, and their interactions with the men they depend on and struggle against are mainly kept offscreen.

The Circle can easily be understood as a blunt argument about the plight of women in Iran, but it shouldn't be dismissed as 'merely' a message film – any more than Panahi's previous masterpiece The White Balloon is merely a film for children. The brilliance of Panahi's movies is the way they work on several levels at once – as quasi-documentaries about everyday life in a city, suspenseful stories about people, and formal puzzles or games that remain incomplete till the final shot. He's able to do this by adopting a narrative technique that (at least up till the ending here) is radically anti-melodramatic – less concerned with grand passions or epic struggles than with the immediate practical problems the characters have to solve in order to get by.

“the program for this year was probably the most densely packed and challenging for a while”

The impressive attendance levels at both these demanding films suggests that the audience for serious art cinema in Melbourne is on the rise – an observation borne out by the festival as a whole. Overseen by newly appointed director James Hewison, the program for this year (the festival's 50th anniversary) was probably the most densely packed and challenging for a while, even if nothing I saw quite measured up to my favorite films at MIFF in 2000, Time Regained and The Wind Will Carry Us. There was a pleasingly large number of adventurous Asian films and an equally pleasing absence of lame American 'independent' films (the plague of recent years).

Out of the sessions I attended (around 40) there were only a few outright duds or completely bland, forgettable works; my personal lowlight was probably My Brother Tom, a crass digital video exploitation of the sexual abuse theme that fuses the twee and the repulsive as only the English can. Highlights for me, aside from those discussed above, included The Isle, The Ruination Of Men, The Gleaners And I, Totally Flaky, Warm Water Under A Red Bridge, ABC Africa, The Beaver Trilogy, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Our Lady Of The Assassins, Werckmeister Harmonies, Pie In The Sky, Faithless, and Miotte By Ruiz. And of course there were plenty of highly praised films that I didn't see.

“Once upon a time, festival catalogues used to contain thoughtful critical discussions of the films being presented”

Certainly there were missing films that should have been included (Chantal Akerman's La Captive springs to mind) and it remains true that, as the cultural theorist Meaghan Morris recently wrote, non-mainstream films tend to be marketed in Australia under just two headings: Quality and Quirky. This means in practice that every film had to be billed in the MIFF catalogue as either a wacky, crazy, trashy cult favorite, or a glowing masterpiece of unsentimental humanism – or some bizarre mishmash of the two, as when The Circle was described as possessing a 'pulp vigour' (there was nothing particularly 'pulp' about the film I saw). But this is more a publicity problem than anything else – the films themselves were nowhere near as formulaic as their descriptions. Once upon a time, festival catalogues used to contain thoughtful critical discussions of the films being presented: dare we dream this tradition might return?

The other area where the festival could improve is in the selection of films from the past. This year the main retrospective program was devoted to the Japanese director Sogo Ishii, a 'maverick' talent who's done everything from comedy to supernatural mystery to swordfight films. Of the Ishii films I saw, highlights included The Crazy Family, which starts off in relatively gentle sitcom mode and winds up with an slapstick orgy of destruction; and Electric Dragon 60,000 Volts, a mad, condensed action movie that aims to blow the audience away with pure kinetic energy, starring a private detective hero who's part Ace Ventura, part Buckaroo Banzai ('He conducts electricity! He talks to reptiles! He's the man!'). Here as elsewhere, Ishii operates in the border zone between genre entertainment and pure abstraction – the pulsating soundtrack with its electrical sizzles and pops is often more 'readable' than the unsteady, fragmented black and white images.

“The interest in filmmaking as an art-form has rarely been greater”

But while Ishii (who's still quite young) is a highly inventive, versatile and interesting director, it's fair to say that so far he's something less than a major figure in world cinema. And otherwise the revived films were a bewilderingly random lot, ranging from the Swedish silent movie Witchcraft Through The Ages (with new techno accompaniment) to the British gangster movie The Long Good Friday and some Australian classics restored by Screensound. Of course, some of these were great – a special highlight for me was Michael Powell's They're A Weird Mob, which was predictably hilarious as a time capsule of fashions and attitudes in 60s Australia, but also offered unexpected rewards for admirers of Powell and his longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger (who scripted under a pseudonym).

What was missing, as other commentators have already suggested, was a really solid retrospective on a crucial figure like Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky – only not those two, since a touring Bresson retrospective screened to packed houses only a little while ago, and a Tarkovsky retro has been organised by the Australian Cinematheque for later this year. The interest in filmmaking as an art-form has rarely been greater, and nor, I suspect, has the desire to see the high points of cinema history in decent prints on a big screen – something the festival organisers may have neglected in their efforts to hype MIFF as a crazy, wild, cutting-edge event. Let's see what they can come up with for next time round. If they can find the films, the audience is there.

Published August 9, 2001

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The Piano Teacher


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