Originally published in The Brooklyn Rail, May 2016
The work of the India-born, Durham-based filmmaker Shambhavi Kaul has a unique relationship with not only the world of contemporary experimental cinema, but also the lineage from which it draws both its inspiration and, quite often, its materials. Slyly spurning the strained, self-serious demeanor of much of the avant-garde, Kaul’s playful and inquisitive films unite histories of personal, cultural, and cinematic intrigue while maintaining an integrity borne of a deep engagement with the natural world. At the inaugural edition of the Big Ears film festival—to the revered experimental music celebration of the same name, which this year took place from March 31 – April 2 in Knoxville, Tennessee—Kaul premiered Modes of Faltering, a new six-channel installation, along with the five-film program, “Planet,” featuring a selection of spoken reflections capped with a reading of a manuscript adapted from a variety of in-flight magazines. Continue reading
Originally published by Sight & Sound, May 15, 2016
French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie made the proverbial splash at Cannes in 2013 with the Un Certain Regard standout Stranger by the Lake. The many laurels the film received in the months following constituted mainstream recognition of a major talent in world cinema – an unapologetic cinematic libertine whose half-dozen prior films casually triangulated European modernism, queer comedy and elements of classic genre cinema. With visceral efficiency, Stranger by the Lake consolidated these disparate threads into a gay cruising thriller pitting man versus man in a hunt for satisfaction as much as survival. Continue reading
Originally published by Sight & Sound, May 20, 2016
A work of resolute social consciousness, Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho’s second feature and followup to his well-regarded Neighbouring Sounds (2012) is at once a refinement and a deepening of the social and stylistic preoccupations laid out so comprehensively in the critic-turned-director’s debut. Expansive yet focused, Aquarius confirms Mendonça’s commitment to Brazil’s middle-class populace – a caste otherwise underrepresented in international cinema – and asserts a newly evident skill for dramatic storytelling. Continue reading
Originally published by Reverse Shot, June 6, 2016
Whether it was the result of an unusually strong and diverse Competition or sheer coincidence, the number of quality films spread throughout the rest of the various sidebars at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival was noticeably few. Even accounting for a pair of pleasing, if very different, features by established veterans in Directors’ Fortnight (Marco Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams and Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog), and a typically agreeable work by Hirokazu Kore-eda in a curiously depleted Un Certain Regard (After the Storm), there wasn’t much on offer in the festival’s two most prominent sidebars that simply met expectations—let alone turned heads in a manner comparable to that of other recent Fortnight or UCR highlights (such as Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights or Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja). Instead the best of this year’s parallel selections came largely from the Critics’ Week and Special Screenings sections of the festival. Between the two strands this ran the age gamut from 86-year-old Paul Vecchiali’s death’s doorstep mediation Le Cancre, to 33-year-old Julia Ducournau’s well-received coming-of-age horror chronicle Raw—as well as across a formal spectrum broad enough to include Alessandro Comodin’s fractured lovers-on-the-lam fable Happy Times Will Come Soon to Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s latest nonfiction memoir, Exile. Continue reading
Originally published by Reverse Shot, May 18, 2016
With its programmers’ predilection for marquee auteurs and icons of international renown, the annual Cannes Competition lineup isn’t traditionally given to touting young or emerging filmmakers beyond a single token selection. After all, the Critics’ Week and Un Certain Regard sections of the festivals are ostensibly designed to provide platforms for directors of such cachet, who may be too green or, more often, too willfully difficult to represent the world’s most famous film festival. Which is all to say that the 2016 Competition stands out amongst recent iterations for its refreshingly youthful complexion. Save for a few requisite standbys (Ken Loach, Pedro Almodóvar, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, among them), this year’s selection features a number of burgeoning talents as well as notable critical darlings, resulting in an uncommonly stimulating first week. Continue reading
Originally published in Senses of Cinema 79
When Gabriel Abrantes’ Taprobana screened at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival as part of a three-film program of new Portuguese cinema, there was little to suggest what perverse wonder lay in store for the unsuspecting viewer. As one such Abrantes neophyte, the work of the prolific 31 year-old provocateur having somehow eluding me despite a half-decade of relatively high profile festival berths, I can certainly speak to the bewildering rush elicited throughout the film’s brief 24-minute runtime. What transpired was at once beautiful and grotesque, quaint and indulgent, serene and surreal – a far cry from the program’s other two films, The Figures Carved into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana Trees, by Joana Pimenta, and the late Manoel de Oliveira’s last completed work, The Old Man of Belem, neither of which could otherwise reasonably be described as ordinary. No matter individual notions as to the film’s artistic merit (or lack thereof), it’s safe to say that what we witnessed from Abrantes that afternoon was genuinely original, a burst of cinematic ingenuity so unapologetically strange that one couldn’t help but take notice. Continue reading
Originally published in Film Comment, July/August 2016
Post-traumatic stress disorder may be a familiar presence in contemporary cinema, but it’s only one dramatic strand in Alice Winocour’s invigorating second feature. The French writer-director’s interest in genre—in this case, the thriller—is of a practical nature, concerned as much with craft as is with the particulars of plot.
Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Vincent, an aggrieved ex-soldier hired to protect Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a wealthy Lebanese arms dealer. Disorder unfolds in a manner resembling its no-nonsense protagonist: chiseled and efficient, the film discards all extraneous gestures. The majority of the characters’ psychological development occurs through its three increasingly impressive setpieces: two in and around the secluded mansion where Vincent and Jessie spend their time cautiously considering each other’s intentions; and one in a parking lot where an attempted kidnapping devolves into a brutal, nerve-jangling shoot-out.
Refreshingly, little attempt is made to psychoanalyze Vincent, the cognitive effects of his condition instead rendered through handheld but precise camerawork and an intricate, disorienting sound mix. His and Jessie’s contrived situation likewise forgoes fortuitous romantic complications. Even the film’s ending is left to the viewer’s interpretation rather than neatly packaged with explication. With Disorder, Winocour has skillfully reconfigured established forms, calling upon the medium’s most elemental tools to prompt an intensely physical response. ♦
Originally published in Cinema Scope 67
At the dawn of the decade, a brief break appeared in the first wave of New Romanian Cinema. Though of similar historic and cinematic concern, a number of the films produced during this period—including Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2013), Cristi Puiu’s Three Interpretation Exercises (2012), and The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), by elder statesman Andrei Ujica—adopted formal strategies unique in relation to the work that had set the movement’s stylistic coordinates in the mid-’00s. Considering the recognizably austere, culturally interrogative output of these and other filmmakers in the years since (see, most impressively, Porumboiu’s The Treasure and Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below, both from 2015), these otherwise fleeting few years have arguably proven as crucial as they were initially deemed cursory—less a wake than an interlude portending an inevitable re-entrenchment. Continue reading
Originally published by Film Comment, May 22, 2016
Known for his provocative reimaginings of Don Quixote, Casanova, and the Three Kings, Catalonian director Albert Serra has, over the course of 10 years and four features, established himself as an artist of singular talent and irascible temperament. With The Death of Louis XIV, Serra again looks to the past for inspiration, but the results are, surprisingly, more reverent than rebellious. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as France’s longest-reigning King during his final days as he slowly succumbs to the effects of cardiac arrhythmia and gangrene, the film observes in a patient, crestfallen manner how one of history’s most famous rulers and a selection of his closest confidants approach an inevitable fate with dignity and reserve. Restricting the drama to the confines of the King’s bedchamber and sparing in his use of extraneous formal gestures, Serra has crafted a ravishing, darkly witty evocation of 18th-century aristocracy and a neoclassical period piece as reminiscent of the historical films of Visconti and Rossellini as the modernist literary adaptations of Rohmer and Oliveira.
Serra sat down with FILM COMMENT at Cannes shortly after The Death of Louis XIV premiered as an Out of Competition selection to talk about his unique on-set process, his film’s more restrained tone, and working with one of French cinema’s most beloved actors. Continue reading
Originally published by Film Comment, May 16, 2016
French filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to his acclaimed four-part 2014 television film Li’l Quinquin, is a work of madcap inspiration—the second in a fresh comedically minded phase of the notoriously austere director’s career. Starring a roll call of seasoned actors—Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Jean-Luc Vincent—alongside a Dumontian clutch of amateurs, Slack Bay pits the upper-class Van Peteghems, vacationing for the summer on the coast of Northern France, against the working-class Bruforts, a lowly clan of fishermen. The Bruforts’ strange traditions and macabre rituals peg them as prime suspects in an ongoing series of unsolved disappearances. Investigating the crimes are a pair of detectives, Machin (Didier Desprès) and Malfoy (Cyril Rigaux), a Laurel and Hardy–type duo as prone to pratfalls as they are to misreading clues. Together these characters descend upon the Channel Coast for a carnivalesque romp inspired as much by the comedy stylings of cinema’s earliest stars as by detective yarns and the grotesquerie of early-20th-century expressionist painting.
Dumont sat for an interview soon after Slack Bay premiered in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Continue reading