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Film Scratches: Self-Portrait of the Self-Portraitist – Astrid’s Self-Portrait (2015)

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Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.

A Review by David Finkelstein.

Astrid’s Self-Portrait is Rena Riffel’s experimental feature about a woman obsessively documenting her own life. The opening of the film, labeled “Prelude” and featuring a stereotypically “gorgeous” shot of the Pacific Coast accompanied by the grim strains of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, announces either that this film takes itself very seriously, or that it is a parody of a film which takes itself seriously, or, just possibly, that it is both of these things at once.

The film’s writer, director, and star, Rena Riffel, is no stranger to the genre of underground, Grade Z parody films, having directed and acted in several of them, including Trasharella (2009). The convoluted plot of Astrid features a “black widow” storyline about the tautologically named Astrid von Star, a woman who dresses and acts like a movie star at all times. Astrid becomes rich and powerful by marrying a series of men, all of whom die under questionable circumstances. It’s a typical film noir pot-boiler story, and Riffel, who is featured in almost every shot and is almost the sole presence in the movie, performs her role with the histrionic over-acting of camp.

Riffel2But Riffel is doing something unusual and genre-defying in this film. In the typical low-budget “underground” film, inspired by the Kuchar brothers or John Waters, the visual style signals to the viewer in every frame that the intention is to make a ridiculous send-up of a trashy film. But Riffel (within the confines of her budget) outfits her film in all the trappings of a highbrow film: artsy cinematography and lighting, slow ponderous pacing, classical music, and the heavy use of symbolism. The acting style may be camp, but the film’s visual style echoes Fellini and Antonioni (Without giving away the ending, I can say that there does turn out to be a perfectly valid plot reason why the film takes on this peculiar tone.)

Astrid is portrayed as a massively self-absorbed, delusional and sociopathic killer whose obsession in life is to turn everything into a work of art, a work of art which glorifies her own magnificence. The key question for the viewer becomes: in a film where one artist is writer, director and star, and is featured in virtually every scene for 80 minutes, is Riffel’s work itself as delusional and self-absorbed as its unfortunate protagonist?

Gradually, the film reveals through subtle clues that its maker Riffel is more self-aware and more artistically sophisticated than her heroine. For one thing, she’s a skilled performer, and her acting style deftly navigates through the strange stylistic tone, midway between camp film and art film, which she has staked out for herself. The silliness of the dialog, as well, makes clear that this film, while not exactly a parody, is still a comment on classic films. That the heroine is a film critic herself is perhaps the strongest hint that Riffel’s intent is to critique and examine the culture and style of commercial filmmaking.

Riffel3The plot about the narcissistic murderess and her all-engulfing art project seems to be an extended metaphor in which Riffel examines her own artistic obsessions. In short, the film is Riffel’s self-examination of her own compulsive self-examination. Since this exercise is realized with a subtle dose of humor and self-satire, as well as some old fashioned film entertainment, the film transcends the kind of self-reflexive vanity project which occupies its heroine. By refusing to signal broadly to the viewer whether the film intends to be silly or serious, Riffel challenges us to question our own responses to the film in virtually every sequence. Her story about self-examination becomes a kind of hybrid construct which forces us to conduct our own self-examination. This sophisticated kind of meta-story turns out not to be a vanity exercise, but a gift to the viewer, offering a chance for us watch ourselves watching, and make our own kind of self portrait.

David Finkelstein is a filmmaker, musician, and critic. For more information on Film Scratches, or to submit an experimental film for review, contact lakeivan@earthlink.net.

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