By Brandon Konecny and Jacob Mertens.
Tucked away on the coast of North Carolina, there is a festival dedicated to the weirdly beautiful, the perversely provocative—a lovingly programmed lineup, taking shape as an island of misfit films that find refuge with their own kind. Carefully placed at the year’s end, Cucalorus shines a light on festival circuit gems that may have gone unnoticed amidst more obvious triumphs. Meanwhile, the impression of camaraderie and an unabashed love for film is only furthered by the festival’s removal of all aspects of competition. What is left is an experience unadorned by status and laurel leaves, in which the favorites are found in after-hours discussion and not left to the clandestine judgment of a jury. This year, Film International‘s Brandon Konecny and Jacob Mertens visited the festival and took part in a spree of cinematic oddity. In the same spirit as the event, they discuss the films that left the greatest impressions on them.
Brandon’s Films of Intrigue
When on the film festival beat, it’s an unfortunate fact that films can start to bleed together, assuming the role of anonymous clogs in the machine that is our festival experience. However, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing provides a full-proof anecdote for such a condition. It follows Anwar Congo, a slender old man who appears to be nothing more than a harmless grandfather who enjoys meeting up with his war buddies to discuss stories from the battlefield. But his wartime tales are markedly dissimilar from most. During the Indonesian military coup in 1965, Congo and his friends, all small-time gangsters, participated in the ruthless execution of thousands of people in his city and elsewhere in the country. All fans of American gangster movies, Oppenheimer invites the gangsters to live their screen fantasies and reenact their brutal killings for a narrative film, to which they all accept. Congo is especially eager to jump on the offer, as he naïvely believes that such a project will provide a therapy of sorts, perhaps alleviating his nightmares of the 1,000 plus individuals who died at his hand. We learn, however, that the realm of fiction isn’t very forgiving. Oppenheimer’s film masterfully toggles between documentary footage of Congo and his companions and the footage of their feature film, and what results is startling. The narrative segments do not offer escape, as the notion of fiction often suggests; rather, it unearths the repressed truths and vulgarities of their interviews, assuming a commentative function. The Act of Killing shows viewers what happens when fiction becomes too unbearable, when the reality of the screen becomes a scathing indictment of lived experience. What then? Escape back to an already traumatic reality? For Congo, neither phenomenal reality nor media offer him solace. Those that died by his hand are forever embedded within his memories, and one would be hard pressed to find a soul in the audience who sympathizes with him.
Taking us from Indonesia to the Mediterranean, Ektoras Lyzigos’ Boy Eating the Bird’s Food probes the collective desperation and disillusionment bred by Greece’s full-blown financial crisis. Based off Knut Camsum’s 1890 novel Hunger, the film is an intimate character study of Yurgos Lanthimos (Yannis Papadopoulos), a twenty-two year old man who’s a perfect candidate for Freud’s couch, to say the least. Estranged from his family, he lives in a cramped apartment with ostensibly his only friend, a canary. His actions are muted and often occur without the accompaniment of words, yet they possess the remarkable capacity to leave us bemused, making us contract our brow in confusion and wish we hadn’t eaten before watching the film. He consumes his feathered friend’s uneaten birdseed, scoffs down garbage, unabashedly stalks an attractive young hotel receptionist, and, in the grossest scene of the film, laps up his own seed—you do the math. We’re unsure why he does these things, and it is to the great credit of Ektoras Lyzigos that he does not attempt to answer this question with easy formulas of fiction. There is no backstory or subplot that rationalizes his behaviors. There’s no need. It is as if he suggests that the motivation behind Yurgos’ acts lies in his surroundings, the decrepitude of modern-day Athens, which Lyzigos candidly captures with fidgety handheld longtakes redolent of contemporary Romanian cinema. In this sense, what ultimately unifies these instances is the pronounced sense of desperation which seems to have gnawed away at the proper functioning of Yurgos’ psyche. Lyzigos shows us the effects of the financial crisis not on the jargon-ridden political level but on the individual, who’s been reduced to a scavenger in a nation from which all positivity seems to have been evacuated.
Unlike the other two films, Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Pioneers offers audiences familiar ground—the conspiracy thriller. Set in 80s Norway, Petter (Aksel Hennie) is part of an American-Norwegian project to extract newly discovered oil deposits at the bottom of the North Sea. Along with his brother Knut, played by André Eriksen, he trains to build oil and gas reserves by participating in rigorous tests of human endurance at great depths. The rest is predictable enough. During one of their dives, something goes tragically wrong and leaves Petter unconscious and his brother dead. To make matters worse, it appears that Petter is somehow responsible for the incident. Like all protagonists of such thrillers, he is unable to accept the official story of what happened and begins to question the higher-ups involved in the project, one being particularly helpful. However, he learns of the severity of his pursuit when his informant is found dead from a suspected morphine overdose. Now, he finds himself constantly looking over his shoulder as he’s pursued by all interested parties, each foaming at the mouth to cash in on the development of resources in the North Sea. Admittedly, Pioneers often ventures into clichéd territory, what with its expected plot, clunky dialogue, and laughable stock characters; and it doesn’t offer anything new to the conspiracy thriller. The film does have some charm, though. It is certain to entertain, being one of the more accessible narrative films of the festival, and I can think of no other film screened that so skillfully wielded somatic empathy. Indeed, as the characters run short of oxygen, it feels as if we, too, are gasping for breath, desperately wanting to relieve the fictionally induced pressure in our chest. Pioneer sets the bait and, whatever we may think of the film on a level of ingenuity, we’re sure to take it.
Jacob’s Films of Intrigue
More than any other viewing at Cucalorus, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways left me with the most to think on. The film centers on Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud), who struggles with his identity as a transgender male while attempting to maintain a relationship with the love of his life. In many films, there would be an instinct to exploit the tension between Laurence and his girlfriend Fred Belair (Suzanne Clément), to expose an inherent imbalance for the sake of drama. And perhaps this is because the idea of a transgender man wanting to stay in a relationship with his very heterosexual girlfriend—simply because their love affair was so significant to begin with—is something of a nervous concept. After all, the very notion challenges what love (and attraction) is supposed to mean. But the film avoids a simple falling out between the characters and instead gives room for a complex and contradictory back and forth between them. Their love affair ebbs like the ocean; they come together and fall apart and come together once more. Meanwhile, the film uses brief poetic asides to help contextualize what each character thinks and feels in a given moment. The result is a depiction of love that cannot help but transcend conventional relationship norms, even if the two can only briefly hold things together before the demands of their sex drive them apart again. By creating a balance between tension and relief, between a desire to be with the one you love and to be the truest version of yourself, Laurence Anyways gains a sensitivity that is rare even among the growing oeuvre of LGBT films.
Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker, on the other hand, finds its story in the bitter wake of divorce. Tayrn (Deragh Campbell), a soft spoken Irish teenager, has run away from her home and finds herself in America looking for a place to stay. Her parents do not know this yet, but as she visits her aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) and uncle Bill (Ned Oldham) in Baltimore, they stand to find out soon. Her cousin Abby (Hannah Gross), who is roughly her own age, is delighted by her sudden appearance and they renew a friendship from a few years past. However, not all is the same with this family as when Taryn left them, and she soon learns that Abby’s parents are in the midst of separating. Tayrn’s own personal conflict bleeds into this domestic drama perfectly. After all, she flees her home for a reason, but she won’t utter a word to anyone. As the film goes on, the divorce turns Abby’s friendship with Tayrn sour, Bill and Kim rehash old wounds from a marriage all but over, and Taryn is set further adrift at a time when she desperately needs her family. In lesser hands, the film would play as melodramatic, scored with fits of shouting and hysteric emotions. But Bill and Kim are both musicians, and so the film effortlessly evokes an emotional response through their music. I Used to Be Darker is a subtle creation, one that finds its subjects vulnerable and frames their anguish with a slow, deliberate pace. In other words, the film makes for a ballad and a surprisingly soothing one at that.
Finally, Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas’ The Oxbow Cure offers audiences a minimal narrative steeped in an encroaching sense of horror. In the film, a young woman isolates herself in a cabin in the mountains, beset with an unnamed illness that will gradually destroy her. As the days pass, she begins to explore the surrounding snow drenched woods, only to find a monster watching her movements from afar. Her initial sighting of the creature holds the tenor of fearful apprehension, and the score responds accordingly. Later though, in a sequence that makes for the film’s high point, the woman chases after a dancing light in the dark wilderness, seemingly unconcerned with the monster’s presence. She has seen claw marks raked across the trees, and she knows the monster is out there with her, but the ephemeral glint of light captivates her and she abandons all thoughts of safety in its pursuit. As she moves, the sound design replaces a need for dialogue: the drone of wind and the crunch of snow become characters all their own. Watching this sequence alone, Oxbow could stand as a worthy successor to the avant-garde trance film. The woman wanders in a somnambulist haze, through a symbolic landscape that is bleak and devoid of life. And she seeks a light whose form will be denied to her, perhaps the fleeting glimpse of a life she won’t be able to live. Robbed of her quest, the woman stumbles across a frozen lake, lies down, and falls asleep. When the film resumes in the morning, an inevitable confrontation between the woman and the monster will weigh heavy, and that confrontation will go on to define the woman’s existential plight in a much more obvious way. But as she sleeps, her submission to the dark carries the emotional crux of the film within a gentle fade to black.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.