Sunday, May 8, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Seven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

This is the seventh of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

The Ninth Day (Volker Schlondorff)
Schlondorff has had a weird, messy career – starting out as a leader of the “New German cinema,” winning an Oscar (amid a hearty amount of controversy) for The Tin Drum, and then drifting from one thing to another. In 1998 I reviewed his Hollywood film Palmetto, a long-forgotten film noir with Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Shue, and quoted him as follows: “I want to be more like my brothers who are directors – just do the operation.” He said of Palmetto: “It’s unabashed trash, and I’m fully conscious of that, and it’s guaranteed to have no deeper meaning.” It’s hard to feel too warm towards an accomplished director who actually might be pining to steer the latest Britney Murphy vehicle. Well, maybe he was having everyone on, for his next film was The Legends Of Rita, a rigorous return to German politics. And except for a pretty mediocre episode in the compilation film Ten Minutes Older: The Cello, that’s it until now.

His latest film returns to WW2, to the true story of a Luxembourg priest interned in Dachau for his role in the Resistance. He’s sent home on a nine-day leave, perhaps to be released permanently if, against all his convictions, he’ll persuade the local bishop to abandon his quiet but influential antipathy to the Nazi occupiers. The main medium of the priest’s temptation is a local SS officer whose faith is deep and informed but twisted into meaningless pragmatism. It’s a small-scale, somber film, filled with dense theological exchange, pivoting on the parallel with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (craven treachery, or an instrument of God’s will?) Although the general trajectory is surely never in doubt, the film conveys how the period’s impossible pressures pushed people into wretched tests, rendering the definition (let alone the execution) of God’s will virtually impossible: the murky relationship between the Vatican and the Third Reich looms large in the film’s background. The Nazis’ limited true reverence for religion is illustrated in the Dachau sequences, where the guards carry out crucifixions and knowingly promote prisoner resentment of the priests’ marginally better treatment.

All that said, it’s a very narrowly focused film, and seemingly the work of an old man drawn to poring over his archives rather than breaking new ground. The film’s virtues are primarily theatrical or literary rather than cinematic. Like numerous directors before him, Schlondorff may have become what he rebelled against as a prime mover of New Cinema, and the choice of another Holocaust subject just makes it seem even more regressive. But given the director’s wavering convictions lately, it’s intriguing to read the priest’s moral struggle as an expression of Schlondorff’s own deliberations.

Cafe Lumiere (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Taiwanese director Hou one of the “two greatest working narrative filmmakers” (the other is Abbas Kiarostami – who had two films at this year’s festival). And yet Rosenbaum’s chapter on Hou in his recent (quite wonderful) collection Essential Cinema is one of the book’s weakest, in that it doesn’t help the reader very much to actually understand why Hou is so great. Rosenbaum doesn’t deny this difficulty, remarking that “part of what makes his work so breathtaking is that he never does the same thing twice.” Ultimately he concludes that “Hou’s movies are about the glory and terror of becoming, and there are few more potent subjects.” It will also be observed that this is so broad as barely to qualify as a coherent “subject.” I’ve seen a number of Hou’s films, but I’ve only seen them once, and this is probably a problem; his films are so densely constructed – narratively, temporally, structurally – that you spend most of a first viewing just trying out to construct a basic mental blueprint of what you’re watching. This complexity seems to reflect Hou’s almost bottomless sensitivity for the tortured underpinnings of Taiwanese society, and his immense psychological intuition.

What a pleasure then that Café Lumiere is the most narratively accessible of the Hou films I’ve seen. It follows a young woman, three months pregnant and just back from Taiwan, as she criss-crosses Tokyo, visiting parents or friends, working on a research project, but most often simply seen in transit. Café Lumiere is, remarkably, a major train movie, and I wonder if the title doesn’t refer in part to the Lumiere Brothers’ embryonic movie of a train entering the station, which (as the legend – apparently wrongly – has it) made spectators flee from their seats. The film watches trains from inside and out, and one character travels the lines recording their sounds or, as someone puts it, recording Japan. The same character creates a digital artwork – a symbolic rendering of the city’s rail system, with a womb and wired-up foetus at its centre.

I don’t think Hou has gone nuts about trains all of a sudden, but their symbolic possibilities as a medium for perpetrating community and human intercourse are clear. The scenes not set on trains are often evasive, marked by silence, contemplative. The film is dedicated to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (as, coincidentally or not, was one of Kiarostami’s two films at the festival this year), and Ozu’s influence is most keenly felt in a superb dining scene near the end (apparently, for those who know Ozu’s work more closely than I do, the references are copious throughout the film), but it’s not a study of a family like Tokyo Story or so many others.

The woman’s research project, on a composer who also spanned Japan and Taiwan sixty years earlier, suggests the possibility of an entirely different avenue of investigation, which the film doesn’t really take up. A more abstract expression of alternate possibilities comes in the presentation of her friend’s store – we first see the space in a single shot from a particular angle; the next time in another single shot with the camera moved 180 degrees – like a shot/reverse shot separated by half an hour. There’s a complex filmic dialogue here on alternatives and oppositions; both thematically and in its technique, the film seems to be about self-definition and its contingencies and choices. This subject might have entailed Hou’s most diverse, ambitious canvas yet, but he responds instead by honing down to his simplest, purest film. It’s not so much about the glory of becoming as of being.

The last time we see the girl, on a station platform, it’s evident that nothing has been “resolved” – the film could start here as easily as it ends. But any observed train encompasses a mixture of arrivals and departures and points of transition. I mentioned one of the title’s nuances, but more broadly the notion of a café Lumiere evokes something at the heart of cinema, a site where joy and beguilement takes precedence over analysis. I never thought a Hou film would have me writing such a bubbly response, but there it is.

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