Lost deep inside the Melbourne International Film Festival

The first thought that strikes you when entering the voluminous space – literally and metaphorically – of a film festival is that the ever seductive small screen has led us astray.

There is nothing like sitting in the glorious auditorium of The Forum in the middle of the day and being transported to multiple, tiny worlds in one diverse planet. A family in California, a menage a trois in Paris, an Australian suburban back yard where fish fall from the sky, a Mexican holiday town… from one seat in a darkened space we give ourselves over to that vast screen where the common threads of what it is to be human become majestic.

Whether a film festival primarily reflects the curatorial tastes of the film-selectors or whether it invariably reveals the tastes of contemporary film-makers is debatable. Themes of powerlessness, loneliness, family dysfunction and ageing seem to come up again and again, cross cultures and the gender of directors – is this about a global synchronicity? Or is it that all film festivals since the beginning of time have wrestled with these themes? Or is it just my subjective response which plucks these themes from every film because they are my own preoccupations? Regardless of the answer, it’s a privilege to have such questions provoked once again at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The more things change the more things stay the same. When my parents went to the festival in the 1950s and 1960s, it was held in a single venue and you saw the same 200 people at every event. My father carried a novel in his pocket so that he could escape to the lobby for the films that failed to grab him. A giant water cooler, the film festival gave its small audience the opportunity to compare and contrast.

Now, like everything, the experience is fragmented. Multiple screenings at multiple venues give us more choice as film lovers, but the experience loses that cohesive club-like atmosphere. The upside is that the whole city becomes a venue, which draws the edges of town in and makes it feel, at least in the minds of pass-holders, like a proper cultural metropolis. You can criss-cross from Hoyts at Melbourne Central to The Comedy to The Forum, grabbing a coffee in a lane-way or a glass of wine reflecting on the diversity of our town from the exciting mini-Asia near RMIT to the trad elegance of Collins Street. It’s fun.

Even members or passholders cannot hope to see the entirety of films on offer. Many buffs choose one strand of the festival to concentrate on – in this case, the Sally Potter retrospective, the always beguiling documentaries or the films from a particular region. As most festival-goers queue for entry into each session, they are forced to confront the faces of the exiting session-goers, inspiring that film-festival hazard “session-envy”, a unavoidable paranoia that everyone else has chosen better than you.

Jungle is a gripping, Australian-made film about nothing at all Australian.

The opening film, Jungle, was a boy’s own adventure based on a true-life lost-in-the-bush tale from the early 1980s of a young spirited Israeli, Yossi Ghinsberg, who ventured into the Bolivian rainforest with two friends, Swiss teacher Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson) and American photographer Kevin Gale (the excellent Alex Russell). Directed by Greg Mclean (Wolf Creek) and featuring excellent performances including Daniel Radcliffe (pictured above) as Ghinsberg, it was an unpretentious yarn about endurance and survival with occasional whacky hallucinatory flourishes. A gripping, Australian-made film about nothing at all Australian, it was an accessible start to the more sophisticated program ahead (and featured 87 year old legendary actor John Bluthal in a small role).

Deborah Winger and Tracy Letts featured in The Lovers (pictured below) –a quietly affecting domestic film directed by Azazel Jacobs, about a middle-aged couple both having affairs and intent on leaving their spouse, who discover that infidelity throws new erotic light on their marriage.  I am always interested in Letts, the Steppenwolf alumni who wowed Broadway audiences a couple of years ago in Will Eno’s The Realistic Jones, is also a playwright –most notably of August, Osage County. He brings his customary wit and humanity to The Lovers, shifting across the territory of both licit and illicit relationships with an effortless sense of absurdity. Winger, too, is great as a woman intent on feeling alive again but sadly conscious that in order to please oneself, one must accept the pain it will cause others.

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April’s Daughters, the newest film of Mexican director Michel Franco, was a crazy foray into mother-daughter relationships. Starring the brilliant Spanish actress Emma Suarez (magnificent also in Almodovar’s Julieta), it tells the story of Valeria (Ana Valeria Becerril), an 18 year old girl whose new baby is kidnapped by her own mother. April, not content with swiping her granddaughter, also seduces the young man who is the father of the child.

While the film concentrates on the Machiavellian (and deeply Freudian) actions of the mother, it quietly becomes the story of a daughter’s love for her baby. Was the mother getting revenge on the daughter for taking away her own youth? Was it an existential cry for help at the thought of losing her children as they became mothers themselves? Winning the Jury Prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section at Cannes this year, Franco’s film is a study in family dysfunction which in less skilfull directorial hands would verge on a tabloid freak show. Emotionally volatile, sinister, upsetting and featuring brilliant out-sized performances, April’s Daughters felt as if it was made by Pedro Almodavar with depression.

Billie Pleffer’s Fysh is a beautifully shot piece of whimsy as an elderly man sitting on his front lawn is suddenly rained on by fish.

The Australian Shorts programs were an enjoyable medley of new talents on the rise. I particularly liked Nora Niasari‘s Waterfall, a tiny tale of a teenage daughter, her mother and soon to be step-father on a road-trip.  Simmering tensions expertly captured – what more do you need than a passing landscape and a few human beings inside a moving vehicle to tell a powerful little story? Billie Pleffer’s Fysh was a beautifully shot piece of whimsy as an elderly man sitting on his front lawn is suddenly rained on by fish. The film charts his hilarious rescue mission as he embarks on returning the fish to the sea. All the short films had something good to offer and reflected on a generation of young film-makers with the endurance to face the financial drudgery and manifold challenges of putting their vision on film.

Could Lover for a Day be another French film about the intimacies of love, infidelity, youth, age and the struggle for identity (what else?).

The first ten minutes of Lover for a Day struck me as almost satirical – if you were creating a stereotypical snapshot of the definition of French film, surely these ten minutes had it all: copious weeping, wild sex in corridors, arguing, beautiful people smoking, black and white… Could this be another French film about the intimacies of love, infidelity, youth, age and the struggle for identity (what else?) and… it was. But director Phillipe Garrel is an expert at the subtle contradictions and hypocrisies of beautiful, intelligent Parisians in love and for those (like me) who never tire of good-looking people who read poetry and struggle with conflict between heart and head, it was an engrossing portrait of bourgeois passions.

Three immaculate performances and the director’s willingness to stay with moments of catastrophic emotion rather than cut away took us deep into the heart of this little world. Gilles, a middle-aged school teacher (Éric Caravaca) is having a relationship with a beautiful and adoring young student, Ariane (Louise Chevillotte). Simultaneously, his same-age daughter Jeanne (director’s daughter Esther Garrel) moves home after a brutal ending to a tempestuous relationship. The two young women befriend and comfort each other as the tides of love and desire flow around the three characters in different ways.

As is often the case in French films and Garrel’s films in particular, one senses a moral point, rather than being delivered one. The best one can do is recognise that hope belongs to youth and this is its innocence and power over experience. Gilles will never be happy the way the young women can because he knows too much.

Melbourne International Film Festival continues until August 20

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