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The best MIFF in years, reports Jake Wilson from Melbourne, and for all the new talents, his favourite film, Story of Marie and Julien, comes from a 76 year old veteran of the art – Jacques Rivette; “I have no idea what I saw, I only know that I left the theatre walking six feet above the ground...”

For anyone who missed out on this year's Melbourne International Film Festival and would like to recreate the experience at home, what follows is the formula for making a hip postmodern Eurasian art movie, in a couple of easy steps. First, find some groovy-looking desaturated film stock and a couple of reasonably attractive twentysomethings (acting ability not required) who look like they don't wash much. Shoot long, empty takes where they stare past each other and fail to communicate. For variety, have them wander the alienating streets of the modern city, engage in unsatisfactory sex, or crouch over noisy, dehumanising video games. Finally, once these characters grow so tedious you can't stand them for a moment longer, it's no problem to have them knocked off by a hitman or psycho, or by each other. At the end, point the camera at whatever banal scene remains in view - probably a city street, with traffic and anonymous pedestrians going about their daily business - and wait till the film stock runs out.

At this point, rather than bitching further about such inoffensive films as Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's chic Last Life in the Universe, Bruno Dumont's strikingly Pop Art Twentynine Palms, or Lee Chang-sheng's touchingly sincere The Missing, perhaps it would be as well to admit that this was the best MIFF in years (even if the selection panel's commitment to retrospectives and non-narrative cinema still appears rather shaky). But at even the best film festivals, it's inevitable that the program will consist of a few truly strong, memorable films and many ordinary ones that blur into each other. 

"What makes the difference?"

What makes the difference? It's not so easy to say - but luckily, more than one expert was on hand to advise. Live at the Festival Club was screenwriting guru Robert McKee, in town for a seminar and a couple of interviews during the fest. In between bemoaning the demise of cinema as a medium, McKee could be heard talking up Kim Ki-Duk's Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring as the best film of the year (Australian viewers will get a chance to check it out in general release in a couple of months). McKee's insistence on solid scripts and characters who "drive" the narrative might be philistine on one level, but it at least offers a corrective to the belief that a "minimal" plot and style automatically equals a credible artistic gesture. 

Then again, by these standards, what could be made of Kiarostami's Five, surely the most minimal film screened at the festival, and one of the most entrancing? Just five shots lasting around ten minutes each, taken from a fixed camera, mainly by the seashore, and featuring, in no particular order, frogs, dogs, ducks, pedestrians, and a piece of wood. Why is this of interest, when Lee Kang-sheng can't film the much greater variety of people and incidents in a busy public park without lapsing into home-movie banality? In part, no doubt, it's because we know this is "Kiarostami" and, if we're fans, recognise his signature obsessions: the piece of wood that rolls along the shore in the opening segment can remind us of all the objects that have rolled through his earlier films. But it's also because, despite their apparent randomness these long takes do feel orchestrated by a human consciousness: each has a minimal narrative structure allowing us to follow the transition of some element from one state to another. Ostensibly, Five sees Kiarostami move closer than ever towards his ideal of a film "without a director". But I'm not so sure - much of the sound is clearly post-dubbed, and I can well imagine that assistants were stationed on either side of the camera, allowing the director to cue the various "natural" elements at the desired moment. ("Release the ducks!")

Kiarostami himself adopted the role of cinematic guru in his doco Ten on 10, also cheaply done on video - ninety minutes of the director driving around the hills of Tehran, wearing his trademark sunglasses as he talks to the camera about the philosophy behind his treacherously "simple" films. On a single viewing, Ten on 10 seemed relatively straightforward by Kiarostami's standards - an illustrated lecture rather than an essayistic work of art in its own right. Yet while Kiarostami has never entirely abandoned his identity as an educational filmmaker, his teacherly approach has always been about showing rather than delivering dogmatic instruction. Moreover, his double-edged irony typically invites us to be suspicious of all claims to authority, including his own. Indeed, perhaps the most telling "lesson" of all in Ten on 10 comes after the official lecture has concluded: inviting the viewer to take a break from his "ugly mug", the director leaves the viewer to contemplate the landscape out the window of the car, while he wanders offscreen to (audibly) take a piss. 

Much of the ground Kiarostami goes over in this film - his distrust of professional actors and background music, his idiosyncratic view of "reality" - will be familiar to anyone who's read interviews with him in the past. In particular, he returns here once again to his favorite notion of "leaving the viewer to complete the film" - or, as Robert McKee might put it, incorporating "subtext". But as Kiarostami makes clear, this doesn't mean simply pointing the camera at a surface "reality" and leaving the viewer to interpret this as he or she pleases; rather, it means gradually leading the audience to share the filmmaker's particular, peculiar way of looking, and thus allowing them to see past the surface reality to a vision not obvious at first glance.

"a handful of films"

For me, only a handful of films at MIFF really succeeded in conveying an individual vision in this sense - but Kiarostami's remarks did help me to define the quality which set those films apart. Apart from Five, the movies which consistently intrigued and puzzled me included Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent, Jacques Doillon's Raja, Hong Sang-soo's Woman is the Future of Man, and Lucrezia Martel's The Holy Girl - all of them dense, involuted studies of complicated human relationships, deserving of multiple viewings and careful analysis. 

My favorite film at all, however, was (in one sense at least) simpler and more straightforward than any of those just mentioned: while it contains a puzzle element, this points less to a mystery which can be resolved than to the fundamental mystery of art itself. This was Jacques Rivette's Story of Marie and Julien, in which one of the true mechanical geniuses of cinema winds up the clock of narrative once again. Not that the story itself counts for much - typically for Rivette, much of it is sheer nonsense that might have been invented in a hurry on the day of shooting (although the director has reportedly been planning this project for over a quarter of a century). For those who want to know, it's a sort of sexed-up Edward Gorey intrigue in which Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a stolid loner who mends clocks, is blackmailing Madame X (Anne Brochet) over a set of fake Chinese fabrics, while renewing implausibly torrid relations with his paramour, Marie (Emmanuelle Beart).

How can a synopsis explain this movie's spell? A nocturnal film, located for the most part in the clockmaker Julien's elegantly ramshackle villa, strewn with books and the iron gears of clocks "like instruments of torture", and bathed in an continual moonlight that seems to issue from Jerzy Radziwilowicz's hard blue eyes. Paradoxically, the use of real locations reinforces the impression of a sealed universe governed by arbitrary symbols and passions: when Julien visits a café, the customers at tables just behind him might as well be sitting in another galaxy, serving only to remind us of his distance from "real life". While the May-December love affair is, admittedly, a stock theme of French cinema (also employed this year in Raja) to call the film a "male fantasy" would be accurate but incomplete. Allegorically, Julien's dwelling is both an artist's ivory tower and a House of Fiction inhabited by ghosts of stories past: Orpheus and Eurydice, the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, and other versions of the myth of the Lost Beloved (including, inevitably, Hitchcock's Vertigo).

"commentaries on the traditions he loves"

Rivette started his career as a (brilliant) critic and has remained one, in the sense that his films tend to function as commentaries on the traditions he loves rather than stories told "straight". Yet he's like a magician who apparently shows you how the trick is done and proceeds to astonish you anyway: by laying bare the machinery of narrative, he demonstrates that the act of storytelling is irrational to the core. The measured pacing and subtly formalised framing make every scene into a stately dance or a child's game of riddles, with the actors arranged in poses that "fix" their characteristic attitudes: Radziwilowicz's phlegmatic strength, Béart's whorish intensity. The effect is both playful and deadly serious, as with painterly insouciance Rivette invites the audience to relish the material pleasures of a high bourgeois lifestyle - coffee on the balcony, a woman's body in a classy nightgown - without trivialising his core themes of sex and death. A little monotonous as well as hypnotic, the film can be seen in retrospect as one long build-up to the final moment when the tautly stretched storyline snaps back like a released rubber band, cueing the audience to wake from their collective dream with baffled delight. To quote the master himself, paying due homage to David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me: "I have no idea what happened, I have no idea what I saw, I only know that I left the theatre walking six feet above the ground."

Published August 12, 2004

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Story of Marie and Julien


Robert McKee

Abbas Kiarostami

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