All change at Locarno? Well, yes and no. While festival president Marco Solari announced plans to expand the festival, the appointment of Locarno insider Carlo Chatrian as artistic director, following Olivier Père’s three-year tenure, signalled a desire for short-term continuity. Whether this can be seen as a curatorial holding pattern or a consolidation of Père’s innovations, which boosted Locarno’s cinephile credentials, this year’s main competition lineup was one of the strongest I can remember in the five years I’ve been attending. And unlike last year, even the allocation of the prizes seemed fair rather than farcical.
What Now? Remind Me
When a film’s opening shot is of a snail oozing across the screen in its own sweet time, you know you’re in for some seriously slow cinema. But after almost three hours, Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me accrues a poetic density that owes a lot to its (not exclusively snail’s) pace. Pinto is a veteran of Portuguese and Spanish cinema, a former sound engineer, a producer, and a collaborator with João César Monteiro and Raúl Ruiz. His film takes the form of a journal covering the year in which he undertook clinical trials with unapproved drugs to treat HIV-related Hepatitis C. Back in the Seventies, Susan Sontag cautioned that “the healthiest way of being ill is one purified of metaphoric thinking.” But sick or not, we’re still creatures of metaphor, particularly when it comes to images. Sontag’s words came to mind when watching Pinto’s repeated shots of mollusks, bugs, and wasps; of the beloved dogs that he and his taciturn partner, Nino, care for; and of the forest fires that threaten the plot of land that the pair spend time replanting with trees. A tightly woven tapestry of metaphorical images, enhanced by Pinto’s candid and bleakly droll commentary, What Now? Remind Me is first-person filmmaking that’s controlled, allusive, and digressive—a worthy recipient of the Special Jury Prize.
While Pinto’s film manages to be extremely intimate yet open to the world, two of the other competition titles were hermetic to the point of being vacuum-packed. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, Corneliu Porumboiu’s third feature, puts the meta in metabolism with its study of Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), a half-hearted film director having an affair with Alina (Diana Avramut), an actress with whom he plans to shoot a nude scene. Filmed in a series of single takes, this is a rigorously formalist comedy of filmmaking manners with a streak of bone-dry humor, but it borders on the arid. Joanna Hogg’s fascinating Exhibition is equally inward-looking. D (Viv Albertine) and her husband H (Liam Gillick), middle-aged artists both, are thinking of selling their desirable modernist London home and moving on. While Hogg gets strong performances from her two nonprofessional leads (both of them artists in real life), she’s just as interested in the surfaces and lines of the house itself, which becomes a character in its own right. Exhibition is exquisitely made, slightly chilly, and one of the most interesting British films in recent years—and, incidentally, arguably the first to examine the U.K.’s dysfunctional housing market. Admittedly, Hogg does this through indirection and silence, and it would no doubt be terribly vulgar to get all Marxist on its sleek surfaces, but boy does the film cry out for it!
Silence of a different kind dominates The Mute, by brothers Daniel and Diego Vega. Constantino (Fernando Bacilio), a Peruvian judge, narrowly avoids being assassinated but is literally silenced by a throat wound. That’s just the beginning of his woes; he’s demoted and begins to suspect a conspiracy, and so he takes the law into his own hands. An enjoyable Kafkaesque character study of a lawman on the wrong side of the law, The Mute is carried by a wonderfully haughty performance by Bacilio, who won the festival’s prize for best actor. A coded critique of Peruvian bureaucracy, the film holds the temptations of the thriller genre at arm’s length and is all the better for it.
Guillaume Brac’s debut feature, Tonnerre, shifts into thriller mode about halfway through, and just about pulls it off. The film starts out gently as a romance between Maxime (Vincent Macaigne), a 33-year-old rock musician visiting his father in provincial France, and local teenager Mélodie (Solène Rigot). When Mélodie disappears and Maxime tries to track her down, the film spirals off into jealousy, kidnapping, and deadly obsession. Brac controls this tonal shift through an acute eye for landscape and setting, and the film features another calling-card performance by Macaigne, whose hangdog charisma we’ll be seeing a great deal more of.
Story of My Death
The standout film in the main competition this year, and winner of the Golden Leopard, was Albert Serra’s Story of My Death. To bill the film as Casanova meets Dracula is both correct and completely misleading. These iconic characters do indeed feature prominently, but I’m not convinced that Serra’s pitch—that this represents the confrontation between Enlightenment gaiety and diseased Romanticism—is much more than pseudo-intellectual padding. However, it doesn’t matter in the least because the film’s serene flamboyance, its complete confidence in pacing and casting (Serra as usual working with nonprofessional actors), and the sheer pleasure in filmmaking on display make Story of My Death feel like a piece of pure cinematic luxury. There’s something uncompromisingly singular about Serra’s cinema (he’s described this film as “unfuckable,” i.e., beyond critique, and he’s wrong of course, but I can see what he’s getting at), and it reminds me, oddly enough, of Fassbinder.
There’s the same commitment to a loyal gang of performers, and where Fassbinder looked to Sirk and Brecht, Serra’s references are to the literary canon (Cervantes and the New Testament in previous films), as well as an intense focus on those moments when a kind of filmic grace settles on the proceedings. That Serra can assemble from a reputed 400 hours of footage the two-and-a-half hours of Story of My Death, and that the results include quite so many moments of beauty is some achievement. Of course, the film will divide audiences, especially with regard to its intermittently funereal pacing, but once you go along with the rhythms and shifts—from the limpid Swiss-set opening section to the brooding Carpathian climax—it makes for compulsive viewing.