Festivals, Film, Reviews, Screen

Melbourne International Film Festival Diary Volume One: Elevating the Every Day

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My experience of the Melbourne International Film Festival veers wildly from year to year. One year I’ll focus on retrospectives, the next I’ll see 30 films. The next, two. At a festival this large, it’s impossible to craft a comprehensive survey, at least for somebody who can’t spend two-and-a-half weeks watching four films a day. I doff my hat to the cinephiles who manage it. But there are few.

This year has seen MIFF spread out, partly a result of previous venues including the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and Regent Theatre being closed for renovations. New venues have been embraced, including the reopened Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street, which is the de facto hub of things this year. Although an undeniably beautiful space (you can smell every dollar of its $20 million refurbishment in the fresh paint), the venue’s salon (presented by Chandon) is no match for the Forum Theatre lounge that has been used in previous years. It’s extremely brightly lit, for one thing, and somewhat difficult to find.

But I’m being distracted by things other than the films (which, ironically, always seems to happen at a film festival).

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After unavoidably missing the well-received opening night documentary The Australian Dream (it screens again this Saturday), things kicked off in a resonant key for me the following day, thanks to Xavier Dolan’s Matthias et Maxime. The Canadian director’s follow-up to the much-hyped but little-seen The Death & Life of John F. Donovan contains all the formal melodramatics and thematic occupations we’ve come to expect from Dolan, but with particular emphasis on the late twentysomething/early thirtysomething experience.

Dolan himself gives a heartfelt performance as Maxime, a young man who’s a little lost. He’s stuck between looking after his difficult mother and semi-passively navigating life with the help of a group of male friends, all of whom grew up together and are roughly endearing and annoying in equal measure. They share the kind of in-jokes and casual banter that develop over the first few years of such dynamics and then become set in stone as group identifiers for years, even decades.

So, what happens when, in this context, your identity begins to shift?

Well, one thing to do is book a one-way flight to the other side of the world (the setting for this film being Quebec; the other side of the world being Melbourne, Australia, which was a nice added layer of interest for those of us watching here). Another thing to do would be to kiss your best friend, Matthias, for a short film that your other friend’s sister is directing.

The film follows the subtle flow-on effects of that moment, which we never properly see except in the way that it seemingly brings both men’s relationship to a head. The film suggests that Matthias is straight and Maxime is gay, although, as it proceeds, we learn that they both have more complex relationships with their sexualities. This nuance is one strength of Dolan’s film.

Mathias & Maxime lead

Matthias & Maxime PIC: supplied

The director of the short film, within the film, is over-the-top and pretentious. “My film is impressionistic and expressionistic,” she pompously declares. And while it’s played as an absurd moment, it’s also the perfect descriptor for Dolan’s skillset as a filmmaker.

He uses a handheld camera to realistically capture the dynamics of this friendship group, but at key moments turns to stylistic flourishes including slow-motion, recognisable pop music (Britney Spears and the Pet Shop Boys, among others) and even references to other films (including a brilliant, emotional homage to Titanic). In these moments, he successfully dredges the film’s drama out of the world of subtext and into text.

These forays into melodrama accentuate the high emotion of what’s ultimately quite a complex portrait of late twentysomething life. This is a dense film, in the sense that it traverses tricky emotional terrain and doesn’t offer much in the way of catharsis, except for a potentially ill-judged final shot. It did leave me wondering: is Xavier Dolan OK?

Elsewhere, prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo returns to MIFF with Hotel by the River. Captured in black and white, this is a slight drama about the dynamics between two groups of people staying in a hotel during the middle of winter. In one group is a poet reuniting with his two sons; in the other, two women meeting after a relationship breakup.

The material is elevated by the filmmaking: Hong rather niftily sketches out the hotel’s key spaces, including a riverside café, the women’s hotel room and the front and rear of the building. He lets the action of one group loop back into the action of the other, gently filling in gaps and presenting us with overlapping social interactions.

In the film’s best moment, the father discusses the names he has given both of his sons. Byung-soo, he tells his son, means ‘side by side’. He named him not just to reflect his desire for his sons to navigate life side by side, but also in recognition of our two selves: the heavenly self of an elevated existence, and the mundane self that navigates daily concerns. The ideal existence, he says, successfully balances both. At this point in time, none of the characters quite seem to be managing it (drama does have to come from somewhere), but it seems as wise a piece of life advice as any other offered up in this year’s program.

I followed this gentle portrait with Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, which was one way to accidentally curate a study in contrasts. Shot in a square-like aspect ratio, the film is a brutal portrait of 1825 Tasmania, and arrived at MIFF having attracted considerable controversy elsewhere.

I followed this gentle portrait with Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, which was one way to accidentally curate a study in contrasts. Shot in a square-like aspect ratio, the film is a brutal portrait of 1825 Tasmania, and arrived at MIFF having attracted considerable controversy elsewhere.

It’s hard to understate just how gruelling the film is. Kent herself has said, “I think we haven’t learned much by turning away from others’ suffering.” She practices what she preaches. Violence, racism (enacted through both language and force), multiple rapes, child murder … Australia’s violent colonial history is all in here, and all captured by her unflinching camera.

I have mulled over this film’s awful subject matter, its excellent performances (including Baykali Ganambarr as Aboriginal tracker Billy, Aisling Franciosi as Irish convict Clare and Sam Claflin as the psychopathic British officer Hawkins), and its strange, almost lyrical final moments. I remain completely flummoxed by it.

Brittany Runs a Marathon was a much lighter affair. Paul Downs Colaizzo’s perfunctorily shot directorial debut is a fine self-actualisation dramedy, with perhaps more of an emphasis on the drama than comedy. Jillian Bell is excellent in the leading role as a woman who is rapidly approaching 30 and takes up running after her GP urges her to make some lifestyle changes.

Refreshingly, the film mostly avoids the fat-shaming clichés that can easily pervade such material, even directly addressing them. Spoiler alert: in the end she does, in fact, run a marathon. I was an emotional mess in these moments, which show how her various friends all help her over the finish line by cheering from the crowd, all while a voiceover guy expounds at length about how the New York City marathon is a global celebration of humanity at its best.

I roll my eyes at the hyperbole now, but in the context of the film they were deeply affecting. This is further evidence that American indie filmmakers are master emotional manipulators.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Brittany Runs A Marathon. PIC: Supplied

Things took a sharp turn back into horror territory with The Lodge, directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s follow-up to 2014’s excellent Goodnight Mommy. Here, they’ve swapped rural Austria for the rural United States of America, where the titular lodge sits ready and waiting to slowly unravel the minds of those who enter.

Not that these characters need the building’s help. Two kids (Lia McHugh and Jaeden Martell) end up snowed-in at a lodge with their father’s new girlfriend (Riley Keough), who is the last surviving member of a cult. In hushed tones and through long, steady tracking shots, things start getting a bit weird. It’s a quiet film, whose horror is less in the moment of viewing than in the slowly dawning realisation afterwards that perhaps the effects of trauma linger for longer than we would like to admit.

If, like me, you spend much of your time missing the screen presence of Clueless star Alicia Silverstone, you’ll be happy to know she pops up here in a key supporting role.

Two highlights of the first week came in the festival’s second weekend. I’ll write more on Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which has quickly become one of the festival’s hot tickets, tomorrow. For now though, I want to highlight my personal pick of the festival so far: Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced.

And Then We Danced_photographer Lisabi Fridell II

And Then We Danced. PIC: Lisabi Fridell

The film is a wonderfully sketched portrait of a young man’s fledgling gay awakening, set in the world of traditional Georgian dance. There’s not a single moment of self-indulgence in the work. There are, however, several sublime ones, including a beautiful moment of playful, ‘dancerly’ flirtation between the film’s two lovers, to the sound of Swedish queer icon Robyn’s ‘Honey’.

The subject matter is serious: Georgia is presented as a stiflingly conservative hotbed of homophobia, a point that’s underscored by the film’s several anonymous credits. And yet the filmmaking possesses a lightness of touch that celebrates small morsels of genuine emotion. From a bravura tracking shot through a wedding to the stunningly defiant final dance number, the film is full of lovely moments depicting a courageous young man (a compelling debut from Levan Gelbakhiani) who reaches out of his repressive confines and grabs a taste of something more exhilarating, a way of life worth living.

Once it finished and I headed into the late Sunday drizzle of Swanston Street, I felt completely energised: about music, queer desire, art, life in general. In short, And Then We Danced had instilled in me a sense of optimism. Not in a hackneyed or pat sense, but in a deeper way, a way that lingers.

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs until this Sunday, August 18.

Click here for volume two.

Feature image: Hotel by the River. PIC: supplied.

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