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At Melbourne’s film festival this year, Iran’s master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami cuts a lone figure but his (unerotic) films attract crowds, while themes of eroticism and sexuality unite the rest of the festival program, reports Jake Wilson.

The coolest thing I saw at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival: the Iranian genius Abbas Kiarostami walking up Bourke St, a spare, reserved, middle-aged man in sunglasses, free of interpreters and minders, moving away from the cinema into the crowd.

In his public appearances during the festival Kiarostami came off a lot like his films: low-key, droll, impeccably courteous and supremely elusive. Having listened to a lengthy, articulate paean to his work by the critic Adrian Martin, his typically self-effacing (and sly?) response was to declare that viewers were as responsible for ‘creating’ meanings for his films as he himself. Similarly, when introducing a screening of his latest feature Ten, he suggested that if viewers got bored they could simply stop reading the subtitles and come up with their own interpretations for the images.

Audience numbers were high at all the Kiarostami sessions I attended (amazingly, not one of his films has yet been commercially released in Australia) but I suspect that some of those attracted by the justifiable hype around this director might have been a bit thrown by the apparent scrappiness of Ten, a series of exemplary conversations between a female driver and her various passengers (including her young son) on car journeys through Tehran. Kiarostami has always been an essentially modest, anti-monumental director, but this new work, shot on digital video, makes his 2000 masterpiece The Wind Will Carry Us look like Lord of the Rings. Having created an entire spatial universe in his earlier films, he now condenses it down to a single point – or rather, a tightly circumscribed visual and aural space consisting of talking heads, traffic noises, and fleeting window views of city scenery. Too easily applauded as a progressive-minded essay on the woes of Iranian women, Ten hints at a deeper structure beneath a typically rambling, repetitious surface, though this didn’t fully emerge for me on a single viewing. 

"Kiarostami’s brilliance"

A better introduction to Kiarostami’s brilliance was supplied by the compilation of early short films, screened as part of a ‘sample’ of his work over the last three decades. (As in other years, full retrospectives seemed to be off the agenda – MIFF really needs to work on this.) Aimed for the most part at educating primary-school-age children, these are among the most perfect movies I know – not through any attempt to be ‘profound,’ but simply the pure intelligence applied in each case to solving the problem at hand. More gruelling than a Takashi Miike triple feature, Kiarostami’s definitive work on the importance of brushing your teeth – in which an incongruously cheerful dentist supplies expert commentary for ten minutes while a youthful patient shrieks and whimpers offscreen – provides a foretaste of his later frankness about the sadistic side of the relationship between filmmaker and subject, while imparting a valuable lesson that no viewer, young or old, is likely to forget.

Elsewhere at the festival, a further challenge to the received notion of Kiarostami as a cuddly humanist was offered by his very uncharacteristic script for Crimson Gold, the latest and possibly best from his gifted protege Jafar Panahi (The Circle). A morose anti-thriller with a style founded on drab urban locations and emptied-out long takes, it follows the events leading up to the suicide of its hero, a pizza delivery man hoping for marriage and better things. It’s the grimmest Iranian film I’ve seen, though it has all Panahi’s usual lucidity and enthusiasm for spatial gameplaying – who would have thought that a single film could recall both Robert Bresson’s devastating tale of corruption L’Argent, and Blake Edwards’ slapstick classic The Party? Only Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf offered a comparably bleak social vision, though this abstract but moving post-apocalyptic fantasy, filmed mainly in semi-darkness, is paradoxically the ‘warmest’ Haneke film I’ve seen. Beginning as a typically dry demonstration of a smugly cynical theorum – people are scum who’ll do anything to save their own skins – it expands emotionally in the second hour, mainly through its focus on children and teenagers: the world may be coming to an end, but meanwhile life goes on.


If one theme united many of the other worthwhile films at the festival, it’s one that Kiarostami barely approaches at all: eroticism. Even without the banned Ken Park, audiences were treated to a range of sex scenes, bound to call forth an equally wide range of emotional responses. At one extreme end of the scale was Phillipe Grandieux’s enthralling though narratively incomprehensible La Vie Nouvelle, where acts of physical violation seem secondary to the violence visited on film form, as the image itself seems to shake and writhe in torment. Just as daring as the Grandieux but at the opposite extreme in tone, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours is a genuinely strange and gorgeously explicit pastoral. Forty-five minutes in, the characters head out for a picnic in the Thai countryside, the already shaky narrative slides into a haze of beatific sexual contemplation and film form itself seems to come unstuck, with the image supplemented by a range of childlike superimposed messages and scribbled diagrams. 

Special prize for chutzpah has to go to Jean-Claude Brisseau’s frankly pornographic Secret Things, featuring two modern career girls who set out to sleep their way to the top. The eyepopping opening in a strip club certainly grabs the attention, but the film loses some steam when it moves from a semi-realistic examination of modern sexual roles to baroque fantasy out of the Marquis de Sade. Brisseau’s big orgy scene easily tops the one in Eyes Wide Shut, but in a way it’s a less sexually radical film than the unassuming Japanese Story, with its startlingly unconventional romance between brash bottle-blond Toni Collette (who might be an allegorical figure of Modern Australia) and the Japanese visitor played by Gotaro Tsunashima (tall, recessive and purse-lipped, demonstrating Jacques Tati’s axiom that the legs are the funniest part of the body). 

The overlap between corporate struggles and sexual power-games also takes centre stage in Olivier Assayas’ experimental Demonlover, which – despite a sleek ‘industrial’ look, a Sonic Youth soundtrack and an almost ludicrously fashionable plot involving espionage and cartoon pornography – alienated many by daring to be surreally ‘boring.’ Mostly it plays out like a series of cryptic semi-professional encounters between players of a game that’s never fully outlined to the viewer. Looking beyond the science-fiction/horror trappings, a friend argued that this was actually a fairly realistic portrait of life in the modern business world, which I suppose could be true if your workmates include Chloe Sevigny, Gina Gershon and Connie Nielsen.

"How do such intimate scenes in movies get filmed "

How do such intimate scenes in movies get filmed in the first place? Catherine Breillat reveals a few secrets of the trade in her very likeable entertainment Sex Is Comedy, which borrows more than just the lead actress (Roxane Mesquida) from Breillat’s previous A Ma Soeur! Though an intentionally minor work – and one that disappointingly never takes the hinted-at plunge into all-out melodrama – the film has Breillat’s usual sensitivity to a network of sexual attractions and aversions, and offers a typically forthright, humorous self-assessment, with Anne Parillaud playing the director’s alter ego as the slightly daffy but unapologetically intense artist that we know her to be.

Published August 14, 2003

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Abbas Kiarostami


Time of the Wolf

La Vie Nouvelle

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