Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fantasia 2011 (Day 19)


The last stretch of the festival begins with this uneven, mostly disappointing Monday lineup. I had high expectations for the first film, which garnered a positive review from the egotistical snobs at Les cahiers du cinéma. Evidently, these guys can't be trusted. Aside from being slightly biased in their appreciation of French cinema, they're way too smart for their own good. So smart as to go beyond smart sometimes, which certainly is the case here. I was almost made sick by the overwhelming verbose permeating the film, one that would better befit an episode of Law & Order than any sort of would-be expressive film. Fortunately, the second film was much better although it was much more conventional. At least it managed to garner some interest from yours truly in its technical contortions, which allowed a fairly restrictive sub-genre (the home invasion film) to gain a fresh new perspective. As for the final film, a misguided attempt at updating the vampire mythos, I would've walked out on it had it not been for a friend whom I didn't want to disappoint. Turns out he would've walked out as well. And so, Vampire is one of the only films at the festival to have really made me waste time.


Dharma Guns (La succession Starkov)
Insufferable, wordy yawner will kill one's spirit in less time than it takes the protagonist to articulate his name eloquently. "Kisson lé Darmageunz?": you will hear that lament many more times than you need to over the course of the film as the punishing accent of the protagonist will grate your ears incessantly. KISSON LÉ DARMAGEUNZ??? KISSON LÉ DARMAGEUNZ??? KISSON LÉ DARMAGEUNZ??? Shut the fuck up already and let us appreciate the maritime scenery! Honestly, I could've easily done with 90 minutes of the second shot (wherein a water skier goes in and out of frame while being dragged by a boat in the foreground) instead of any or all of the narrative strands contained further. At least, that would've been truly experimental, unlike what I was treated to, namely a series of static two-shots containing various people talking to no effect. The music and the photography are nice and so is the stark contrast between the oppressive interiors and picturesque panoramas on display, but everything is eventually overwhelmed by the incessant ramblings of the characters. Now, you'd think that an honest attempt at creating the necrotic dreamscape that the film vies to depict would tend to excise dialogue (or monologue) in favor of impressions. But that is not the case here. Fans of Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poète might enjoy the fact that Dharma Guns's narrative similarly takes place almost entirely in between two contiguous moments (the crumbling of the chimney in the former; the death of the protagonist in the latter). But they will also be cruelly reminded that Cocteau's film was thankfully unsoiled by voices in its attempt at depicting the oneiric.


Fairly standard home invasion narrative unfolds within a dozen, carefully crafted long takes. The result is a gripping venture into the intimate terrors of a family taken hostage by the usual, unpredictable gang of thugs. The kidnapper's motives are conventional (the riches beheld by the family in the form of credit cards, PIN numbers and safe-protected valuables) and so are their methods (intimidation and menace). What is unusual is the level of tension achieved by the filmmakers. Near the end, the atmosphere had become so suffocating that I nearly puked. What the film achieves, with the help of a highly volatile camera and some masterful visual trickery is to draw the viewer too close for comfort, as if he were a ghost roaming the narrow corridors of the large, carpeted homestead where the action takes place. What's more is that the film adds narrative weight to the mix by juxtaposing storylines using a masterful system of split screens. The final two split screens, chronicling the parallel efforts of the exhausted patriarch and his shell-shocked daughter in trying to rid themselves of their aggressors is brilliantly handled, culminating in a sublime merge that preserves the integrity of both long takes. Rarely has such a formulaic genre film taken such a novel approach and sustained it throughout. This is really a crowning achievement. Well done.


What the film boils down to is a handful of great ideas (concerning the contemporary urban vampire) simmering in a stew of constant mood swings, abrupt ellipsis, flabbergasting narrative shortcuts, atrocious music and ever-multiplying, unresolved storylines involving an alarming number of accessory characters. Arbitrary power reigns and the resulting product is uninvolving to the point of absolute futility. What's really surprising here is how the director painstakingly establishes serious dramatic issues in one scene, but abandons them in the next or how he creates tension only to have it defused by a sudden, perplexing joke. Clearly, many editorial choices should've been made here that weren't. Hence, the whole concision, nay, the whole relevance of the film is compromised.