Melbourne International Film Festival – Day One

Melbourne International Film Festival – Day One. By Simon Miraudo.

So it begins! Kinda! Although yesterday was technically the opening night of the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival, I was too busy chatting with Geoffrey Rush on the red carpet, and having John Safran compliment my hair to see the first film of the fest, The Fairy. You know how it is. *Clatter!* Oh, sorry, those are my names; let me just pick them back up…

So, let it be known it was on the 22nd of July I began my 60 Films in 17 Days Blog-A-Thon challenge in earnest. And seeing that I have to discuss 60 films over the next 17 days, I will try to limit the frequency – and absurdity – of my traditional diary digressions; although let’s face it, they’re probably inevitable. Let’s begin!

1) The Silence of Joan

The challenge got off to an inauspicious start with Philippe Ramos’ The Silence of Joan, a retelling of the final days of Jeanne d’Arc’s (or Joan of Arc’s) life from the perspective of three men who admired and pitied the self-proclaimed voice-piece of God. Captured by the French, sold to the English, and sent to prison, Joan must also contend with the fact that the voices in her head have suddenly stopped talking (remember, for her, this is a bad thing). The effortless Clémence Poésy stars as our eponymous hero, carrying her with the requisite amount of grace. Thierry Frémont, Liam Cunningham and Mathieu Amalric also do nice work as a sympathetic doctor, a thoughtful soldier and an obsessed preacher respectively. The problem here lies with the script (IMDB credits no screenwriter, which explains a lot. I kid…). I just don’t know what to make of a protagonist whose entire struggle occurs off screen. It’s hard enough to convey internal conflict, let alone that of a woman who has just undertaken a vow of silence, but that is just what Poésy must communicate. She does her best, but ultimately the character’s major shifts and reversals occur out of sight, and we are left to trust text that appears on the screen to tell us how exactly our character has changed. The device of using the three male characters to tell Joan’s story never really pans out either; spending time with these guys feels more like detours than anything else. At only 90-odd minutes, the film was a bit of a slog, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fighting off the sandman and struggling to keep my eyes open (not a good sign for my first film). I was entertained, however, by the elderly couple sitting in front of me who actually covered their eyes with their hands during the nude scenes. Who are these people going to a screening of The Silence of Joan (at the ACMI; at MIFF!) and feeling so uncomfortable at the sight of boy and girl parts that they actually have to psychically shield themselves? Prudes. They’re the weirdos!

2) Senna

Now we’re talking! Although my first film was a disappointment, my second was overwhelmingly good enough to more than make up for it. Asif Kapadia’s documentary on the life and early death of F1 racer Ayrton Senna – a man and sport, I admit, I knew nothing about before attending the screening – is a stirring and spectacular achievement. As an engaging film, it finds the human drama and narrative drive (pun!) in his rivalry with fellow racer Alain Prost. As a car movie, it leaves Fast Five (et al) in the dust; the helmet-cam sequences of three-time world champion Senna expertly navigating the track are electrifying, and more befitting of 3-D conversion than anything in Transformers. As a document of a man’s life, it’s deeply affecting. Kapadia stands back; he compiles enough archive footage of the legend, the supporting characters in his life, and the major events of his career, to almost make it seem as if this is the world’s greatest and most believable re-enactment. As a document of life in general, it’s freakishly astute. We don’t learn much about Senna as a young man, his private life, or why he even got into racing. But we understand who he is, and believe him when he says he needs to race, and that quitting is never an option. Senna isn’t just about Senna; it’s about what drives (yes, yes, pun again intended) us to do the things we do, sometimes beyond all reason. Although Ayrton’s fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix is never mentioned or alluded to prior to its occurrence in the film, the spectre of death looms large over proceedings. Even Senna seems to recognise that his fate is written in the stars as he approaches his doomed race. Kapadia neither tries to brighten the mood with a cheap finale, or attempt to jerk tears with overwrought melodrama (I still succumbed). Although that ominous sense of dread is ever present, it’s overshadowed by the voracious central character at the film’s core. His is a compelling and human story, albeit a tragic one. There’s no need for it to be sugar-coated for it to remain inspiring.

3. Cold Fish

How to describe Sion Sono’s Cold Fish? How to describe any Sion Sono film?! Let’s see if we can’t work out a nifty logline for this one-of-a-kind movie: a timid fish-shop owner (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is unwittingly drawn into the life of his magnetic rival (Denden), who charms both his wife and daughter and ultimately makes him an accomplice in his increasingly bizarre and violent exploits. Good enough! Perhaps the best advice I can give – as with any film from the controversial Japanese director – is you should go in cold (like the title), knowing as little as possible. I’ll say that the film reminded me of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man – which similarly dealt with a passive and inactive antihero whose attempts to take charge of his life lead to disaster – minus all the Judaism and plus a whole bunch of ultra-extreme hyper-gore. There were also hints of the weird energy from Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (the events of Cold Fish take place over one week, as we are reminded by constant clock updates, as opposed to the single evening in After Hours). This is, however, a Sono film through and through. Overlong? A tad. Still, at two-and-a-half hours it’s 90 minutes shy of his predecessor Love Exposure. Insane fun? Absolutely. Darkly funny and deliriously absurd in all of its bloody glory, I found it impossible to look away. That being said, there was an unpleasant undercurrent of violence towards women, which, in the film’s final act, became an aggressive and inescapable overcurrent (that’s not a real word, but go with me here). The violence always felt justified and true to the vile character(s) perpetrating it. But we’re talking some serious misogyny here, and it made me feel pretty uncomfortable. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to depicting such actions: there’s no need to outwardly say that the act is wrong when the characters themselves are so obviously insane and awful, but to use it for comic ends, or even to titillate, as Sono does here, indicates that he’s probably reveling in the cruelty a little too much.

And on that note…

Only 57 more to go!

Previously:

Opening Night

Discuss: Which films have you caught so far?

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