In volume 2 of his Melbourne International Film Festival diary, critic Anders Furze takes in films including the hot ticket of the festival: French period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and a restoration of 1990’s Return Home, starring a young Ben Mendelsohn.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an elegant piece of period filmmaking that follows a burgeoning romance between two women: a painter and her subject. In 1760, Brittany Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives to paint the wedding portrait of the reluctant Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). When Héloïse’s mother departs for a few days the women embark on a slowly unfurling romance.
It’s a quiet film, save for two moments where music is used to deeply emotional effect: once in relation to womanhood, and once in relation to this specific romance. In particular, its final moment lingers.
Elsewhere, first-time feature filmmaker Amin Sidi-Boumédiène’s Abou Leila is an increasingly surreal endurance test that nonetheless examines an interesting subject: the psychological effects of the violence enacted in Algeria’s civil war. The film follows two men as they track a terrorist named Abou Leila through the Sahara Desert. As played by Lyès Salem and Slimane Benouari, the men have an intense, shifting relationship. You’re never entirely certain about this partnership, the power and narrative shifting around them.
The resulting road trip is increasingly surreal and violent. At various points, the camera pans away from the two characters and their car and into their sandy surrounds, taking in the odd absurd flourish in the process. It’s an effective visual technique, capturing how violence is displaced, from past memories to present lives and, ultimately, the landscape itself.
In Fabric provided an intriguing dose of horror, and it anchored a retrospective of the work of British director Peter Strickland (who was a guest of the festival). This weird film initially focuses on Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a working-class mother with an ungrateful son who buys a red dress from a local department store.
That turns out to be a mistake: it’s a killer dress, you see, prone to bringing its wearers out in rashes, or driving a washing machine into thunderous disarray.
In Fabric. Pic: supplied/MIFF
Those expecting conventional horror treatment of such material should be warned – there’s more to this film than just a killer dress. While the plot goes off the rails about half-way through, the film is more successful if seen as a collection of increasingly bizarre images and vignettes that together take as their subject that icon of 20th century consumer culture: the department store.
“Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism,” the store’s strange customer service ladies ask shoppers. There are increasingly terrifying shots of models in catalogues, and unsettling TV commercials. Forget the plot (Strickland seemingly did), the film’s force lies in the accumulation of these moments.
Also the focus of a retrospective: Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris. I managed to catch Suburbia, a fascinating time capsule of the early 1980s punk scene of Los Angeles. She coaxes some variable performances from her cast of real punks. A young Flea, of Red Hot Chilli Peppers fame, is the strongest of these supporting players who live in an abandoned house at the edges of suburbia.
We’re a long way from Hollywood or anything, really, save for miles of concrete and the local mall. In a video introduction, Spheeris mentions that Roger Corman co-financed the film on the proviso that every 10 minutes there would be violence or sex. And so Corman’s dictum keeps things humming along, as do the increasing clashes between these punks and their parents.
We’re a long way from Hollywood or anything, really, save for miles of concrete and the local mall.
The punks’ rebellion against middle-class morality is on full display, including casual homophobia, the mocking of a man with a disability and even the kidnapping of a (willing) child from his dinner table. As for the middle-class adults: when they’re not being presented as raging hypocrites they take an almost fetishist pleasure in hunting animals and hassling the kids. It’s a brilliant film: full of energy, humour and, ultimately, well-deserved rage at stiflingly rigid suburban confines.
Another restoration arrived in the form of Ray Argall’s 1990 drama Return Home. A young Ben Mendelsohn plays a key supporting role as a young mechanic, employed by Frankie J. Holden’s Steve in suburban Adelaide. Dennis Coard plays Steve’s brother Noel, who left Adelaide for the corporate world in Melbourne.
He does as the title says and returns home for a period. It’s a very sentimental portrait of Australian suburbia – fish and chips on the beach, family mucking about in the backyard – but it compellingly prosecutes its case as the filmmaking is so strong. The film is refreshingly frank about the business dangers encroaching upon Steve’s small business, and the final crane shot will motivate anybody to give up the rat race for a simpler life (though as the film makes clear, it’s not an entirely uncomplicated one.)
Return Home. Pic: supplied/MIFF
Staying in Australia, Sequin in a Blue Room is the feature debut of recent Australian Film, Television and Radio School graduate Samuel Van Grinsven. It’s a stylish little number about a gay teenager using hook-up apps to orchestrate a series of semi-anonymous encounters in various Sydney apartments.
The blue room of the title is the setting for the film’s best sequence: a sex party featuring strikingly shot men hooking up against plastic sheets and in pulsating blue light. The film doesn’t quite reach that height of stylish ambition again, although other aspects of the filmmaking, including the strongly embedded use of on-screen phone screens to depict the culture of hook-up apps like Grindr, suggest interesting things to come from its key creatives.
Finally, Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho was responsible for one of my favourite films of 2016, Aquarius, a portrait of both an older woman and the apartment in which she lives (you can find it on Netflix). Alongside his producer and production designer Juliano Dornelles, he co-directs the utterly distinctive Bacurau.
Set a few years in the future, the film opens in outer space before zooming to the small town of the title, in rural Brazil. In neorealist style, we get to know the inhabitants of, and visitors to, this small town: the doctor (played by Aquarius star Sônia Braga), the slimy local politician, a woman who has returned after time away.
And then things shift. German actor Udo Kier shows up, leading a team of foreign tourists who it quickly becomes apparent are there to hunt the townspeople. From there, things move into arthouse western territory, as the townspeople and these American and European hunters face off.
It is an unashamedly political work that demands to be seen in the context of the recent rise to power in Brazil of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, who dissolved the country’s ministry of culture. During production of the film, the government told Mendonça Filho to pay back $500,000 in funding that he received for his debut Neighbouring Sounds.
That kind of political pressure is a sign that cinema still matters. It’s also a reminder that, for many of the filmmakers who rely on the international film festival circuit to distribute their work, the stakes are real – and high – in the telling of these stories.
The Melbourne International Film Festival runs until this Sunday August 18.
Feature pic: Portrait of a Lady On Fire (pic: supplied/MIFF)