Locarno Film Festival 2012
by Richard Porton

Gael Garcia Bernal as ad man Rene Saavedra in Pablo Lorrain's No

Gael Garcia Bernal as ad man Rene Saavedra in Pablo Lorrain's No

Several weeks after the 2012 edition of the Locarno Film Festival concluded, Olivier Père, who had successfully completed his third year as director, announced that he was resigning to become the head of ARTE, the French television network. Although the team of Gilles Jacob and Thierry Frémaux at Cannes seem destined to wield influence for years to come and Dieter Kosslick has helmed Berlin for over ten years, Locarno’s identity has shifted vertiginously for the last decade as a procession of directors have come and gone.

Père unquestionably made an impact on Locarno by balancing audience-friendly programming at the al fresco out-of competition Piazza Grande screenings (a spectacular open-air venue in the city center that can accommodate up to 8,000 spectators) and more hard-core cinephilic fare at Locarno’s equivalent of the International Competition, the Concorso internazionale, as well as several sidebars—the Concorso Cineasti del presente and the Fuori concorso. In practical terms, this often means that either the most commercial Hollywood films, or blandly accessible art-house fare, is relegated to the Piazza Grande while the more adventurous titles end up screening to slightly smaller, if nonetheless enthusiastic, audiences at one of Locarno’s warehouse-like auditoriums. Still, even if an archetypal Piazza Grande choice, Cate Shortland’s Lore, was little more than a tepid, perhaps unwitting sequel to Michael Haneke’s already overdetermined The White Ribbon, it was nevertheless fascinating to ponder a Swiss attempt to make a formulaic genre film—Michael Steiner’s The Swiss Miss Massacre. An unfrightening variant of Scream, Steiner’s film makes light of the plight faced by beauty pageant contestants in distress that appeared to amuse some local viewers (no doubt because they grasped the intricacies of the Swiss-German dialect) far more than the rest of us.

Pablo Larrain’s No, which had already won the Art Cinema award at Cannes’s Directors’ Fortnight, was by far the Piazza Grande’s most successful bridge between populist mass appeal and the demands of cinematic rigor. The third installment of Larrain’s “Pinochet trilogy,” No is an ingeniously constructed fable of political gamesmanship that chronicles the waning days of the general’s dictatorship as, with no choice but to appease international opinion, he agrees to a plebiscite to determine if the public will approve the continuation of his presidency for another eight years. A loosely fictionalized account of the successful ad campaign devised to depose Pinochet in 1988, the film upends the usual cynicism about promoting political positions in the same manner as advertising agencies sell Coca-Cola by maintaining that the techniques employed by the society of the spectacle led to the hated general’s ouster. Much of the film’s impact is heightened by Larrain’s decision to shoot the film in the same low-res video format popular in the 1980s; the muddily shot fictional sequences blend seamlessly with archival footage of many of the actual campaign commercials that proved devastatingly effective at the time—even Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve, and Richard Dreyfuss were dispatched as spokespeople for the “No” team. Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance as René Saavedra, the wily advertising genius behind the “No” campaign, is brilliantly understated. Larrain’s favorite actor Alfredo Castro is impressive as René’s oily boss, a Pinochet operative who does his best to intimidate both his underling and the left opposition.

Robert Sommer in Jem Cohen's Museum Hours

Robert Sommer in Jem Cohen's Museum Hours

As Kieron Corless has already observed in Sight & Sound, Locarno was dominated by a number of films blurring the boundaries between fiction and documentary. This was probably less a result of a concerted agenda on the part of the programming team than the fact that a convergence of fictional artifice and documentary realism is the most conspicuous trend on the international festival circuit. What became apparent at Locarno was that some stabs at fiction/nonfiction melds are much more lucid and satisfying than others. In a festival festooned with documentary/fiction hybrids, the International Competition offered one rousing success—Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours—as well as a partial misfire, Joao Pedro Rodrigues’s The Last Time I Saw Macao. One strand of Museum Hours delineates an unlikely platonic friendship between an American tourist in Vienna to comfort her dying cousin and a museum guard at the city’s major art museum, the Kunsthistorisches. A parallel narrative features learned disquisitions on many of the paintings (particularly the collection’s impressive room of Brueghels) housed in the museum. On paper, a film that synthesizes the evolution of a sexless friendship with exegeses of paintings that might be pilfered from a lost John Berger manuscript sounds rather ponderous. Yet Cohen, aided greatly by his lead actors, the nonprofessional Bobby Sommer and Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, avoids pretension by convincing us that his working-class protagonist is as passionately committed to explicating what many consider “high art” as any credentialed critic or theorist. A meditation on both sublimation and “the sublime,” Museum Hours is the rare film that appeals to both the head and the heart.

Portuguese director Rodrigues, whose Fassbinderian To Die Like a Man (2009) is a moving narrative foregrounding the plight of a drag queen at the end of his tether, juggles fiction and nonfiction with less assurance in The Last Time I Saw Macao. Rodrigues endeavors to fuse the essay film with melodramatic pyrotechnics. Much of the film evokes the lyricism of Chris Marker by focusing on the chasm between co-director João Rui Guerra da Mata's reminiscences of his childhood in the former Portuguese colony and a posthandover city that has been transformed into a considerably different entity under Chinese rule. Unfortunately, a pulpy, and ultimately banal, narrative featuring transgender actress Cindy Scrash frequently interrupts these musings.

João Pedro Rodrigues's To Die Like a Man (2009)

João Pedro Rodrigues's To Die Like a Man (2009)

At first glance, another competition entry, Sean Baker’s Starlet, gave off signals of Sundance-style smarminess—even though the film actually premiered in the U.S. at South by Southwest, which might be christened Sundance, Jr. This tale of Jane (Dree Hemingway), a twenty-one-year old part-time porn star, who befriends a cranky elderly woman named Sadie at a yard sale, had all the earmarks of either meet-cute sappiness or a gratuitous expose of the “seamy” side of LA. Even the fact that the starlet in question is the name of Jane’s Chihuahua did not bode well. Fortunately, Baker (whose Take Out, 2004, co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou, was one of the most empathetic glimpses of the immigrant experience to come out of indie cinema in recent years) avoids all of the pitfalls inherent in this scenario and makes Starlet a nuanced look at the ambiguities of both intergenerational friendship and the sex industry.

The world premiere of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Vérena Paravel’s Leviathan caused the biggest splash among Locarno’s cinephilic contingent. For viewers expecting a retread of Sweetgrass (codirected by Castaing Taylor), Leviathan turned out to be far more aligned to the avant-garde and more likely to polarize audiences (Audience members either responded rapturously or walked out of screenings shaking their heads.) Inspired by the Book of Job, Moby-Dick, and Thomas Hobbes, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s film is most striking for imbuing what is purportedly a documentary on the fishing industry off the coast of New England with a rich, allusive texture that reflexively suggests a number of other genres and approaches to filmmaking. Immersive cinema par excellence, Leviathan, with the aid of multiple cameras shared by the filmmakers and disparate fishermen, captures the result of a prototypical day at sea in a nonnaturalistic style that evokes abstract expressionism and the films of Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow. On another level, the piscatorial carnage resembles a horror film, in which the blood from a day’s catch mingles with shots of predatory gulls that bring to mind the climactic moments of Hitchcock’s The Birds. While this modernist documentary could either be viewed as Moby Dick from the perspective of the whale, a plunge into the abyss that, as Robert Koehler observes, almost transforms spectators into the equivalents of splotches in a Jackson Pollock painting, or a slightly sardonic portrait of Hobbes’s “state of nature,” it is, above all, profoundly antianthropomorphic and, for the most part, antianthropocentricalthough the result of labor is at the film’s epicenter, human beings play only a marginal role in Leviathan’s universe of discourse.

In the wake of critical enthusiasm for Leviathan and Museum Hours, the awarding of the Golden Leopard to Jean-Claude Brisseau’s La Fille de nulle part (The Girl From Nowhere), a film that most critics found inconsequential, was slightly baffling. Brisseau is known for making highbrow soft-core porn—middling eroticism slathered with a thin veneer of social significance. The Girl From Nowhere is in a much different register. A kind of mystical love story with almost no sex, it is as trivial as it is earnest. Brisseau himself plays a retired math teacher, Michel, who magnanimously gives shelter to a troubled young vagrant named Dora. The film telegraphs its orientation by letting us know from Michel’s bookshelves that he’s a Hitchcock devotee. Perhaps designed as a low-key Vertigo, Brisseau’s ode to a young woman who might be either a ghost or a figment of his alter ego’s imagination is too insipid—not to mention poorly shot—to be cinematically seductive.

When new films prove disappointing, Locarno guests can always take refuge in meticulously curated retrospectives of major directors. This year’s almost-complete tribute to Otto Preminger (Porgy and Bess was not available for screening because of longstanding objections to the film by George Gershwin’s estate) included several revelations in addition to a host of familiar titles. An admittedly minor film such as In the Meantime, Darling (1944) was instructive inasmuch as it confirmed that Preminger could put his own touch on a piece of fluff when necessary. This wartime saga of a GI and his new bride forced to reside in a boarding house in the midst of a housing shortage is entertainingly derailed by the appearance of beloved character actor Eugene Palette as the bride’s father. It was even more gratifying for me to finally see Preminger’s last film—The Human Factor (1979), a zealously faithful adaptation of the Graham Greene novel scripted by Tom Stoppard. A stripped-down, even austere production that bears little resemblance to the blockbusters Preminger is known for, The Human Factor succinctly captures Greene’s homage to a MI6 agent (brilliantly portrayed by Nicol Williamson; the supporting cast includes Richard Attenborough, Derek Jacobi, and John Gielgud) whose loyalty to a friend trumps his obligations to his bureaucratic bosses. At a festival that inevitably fetishizes the new, there was something refreshing, and oddly contemporary, about Preminger’s minimalist spy film.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.