Warped Expectations: Locarno 2023
This article appeared in the August 17, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Human Surge 3 (Eduardo Williams, 2023)
On Friday, August 4, the day Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World premiered at the 2023 Locarno Film Festival, online influencer Andrew Tate—the self-proclaimed “king of toxic masculinity”—was released from house arrest in Bucharest, Romania, pending his trial for rape and human trafficking. That Jude’s film and this news item had simultaneously emerged at the top of the festival’s mental feed struck me as divine coincidence: one of the sprawling movie’s many masterstrokes sees the protagonist, Angela (Ilinca Manolache), ventriloquizing Tate’s visage via a TikTok filter. In the guise of a digitally balded and bearded alter ego called “Bóbita,” the jaded production assistant delivers obscene missives to her online followers, satirizing Tate’s misogynist shtick with a nonsensical string of profanities that resembles speaking in tongues. Like most TikToks, these posts are pointless, yet deeply therapeutic. In Angela’s 16-to-24-hour workday, in a country that plays Renfield to the corporate interests of Western Europe, a bit of play is both a necessary nourishment and a “fuck you” to the demands of relentless productivity.
I’m consistently energized by the spirit of adventure that animates Jude’s work, which sees Romanian society through a spiky, modernist lens, deconstructing the discourses that warp the relationship between the country’s present and its violent past. In his previous films, like 2021’s Berlinale winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, that approach has sometimes seemed limited to pointing out latent ironies; here, Jude goes further, confident in his provocations. The nearly three-hour film is composed of two parts. The much-longer first is a road movie in which Angela auditions former employees of an Austrian company who were severely injured at work, with the goal of finding a suitable candidate to star in a corporate safety film. The second part is a roughly 40-minute static shot observing the filming of this video: as the lucky ex-employee delivers testimony about his injury, his truth is tweaked and transformed with each take to sound more and more like insurance-liability-speak. Scenes from Angela Moves On (1981), a late-Ceaușescu-era drama about a female taxi driver, are interjected throughout the film’s first section, creating a meta-conversation between the gig-economy workers of the Communist then and those of the neoliberal now.
But this loose description doesn’t do justice to the film’s free-associative cornucopia: there are jabs at Anthony Bourdain and Jean-Luc Godard, porn addiction, and the corruption of the Romanian football league; Z-movie director Uwe Boll plays himself in a punchy interlude on the set of his latest piece of schlock; and Nina Hoss cameos as the Austrian company’s marketing executive, an imperialist specter in a Zoom window. It all comes together to paint a satirical and schizo-dynamic yet intensely lucid portrait of contemporary Romania, exuding a clarity forged by a blue-fire fury that seems to have passed through several lifetimes of bullshit.
Éléonore Saintagnan’s first feature, Camping du lac, is also guided by wandering rhythms. The film begins in a somewhat generic Rohmerian register of gentle introspection and observation, and then, as if by magic, dissolves its first-person voiceover into the stuff of collective dreams. Saintagnan stars as a filmmaker whose car breaks down near a provincial lakeside community in Brittany. Days turn into weeks and months as she waits for the local mechanic to fix her vehicle, though eventually she decides to sell it. Along the way, stories about the townspeople unfold playfully from Éléonore’s perspective. Each “household” is composed of outsiders and loners who seem to have stumbled upon the place and found solace in its smallness. Dramatizations of kitschy medieval lore and rumors of a magical fish from Biblical times still roaming the lake’s waters tether the setting to a Catholic strain of French traditionalism whose beliefs and rituals are parodied yet understood as a kind of social glue. Saintagnan situates her character as an artist-voyeur, yet her fascination with the community turns into something like love as the townsfolk absorb her into their intimate folds. And then, in yet another of the film’s sleights of hand, Camping du lac transforms from a tale of individual discovery into a parable about corporate destruction: when the legend of the fish is used to promote tourism, the lake’s waters become a hot commodity, siphoned away at night by thieves with tank-trucks. The film is a fresco-like celebration of—and, in the end, a stinging eulogy for—an alternative mode of living, increasingly threatened by capitalistic vampirism.
Inexplicably programmed out of competition, Mademoiselle Kenopsia, by Locarno regular Denis Côté, stages the nightmare flip side of Camping’s daylight solidarity, extending and riffing anew on the Québécois director’s perennial themes of estrangement and solitude. Here, the echoes of loneliness ring even louder than usual. Mademoiselle (frequent Côté collaborator Larissa Corriveau), a Swintonesque woman with android-like features, presides over a massive building with an unknown function that would appear to be abandoned were it not for the presence of its antsy custodian. A haunted-house adventure evacuated of action, the film recalls the charged formalism of Chantal Akerman’s Hotel Monterey (1973), with long, fixed shots, quivering with menace, of vacant, gray rooms and wall-mounted surge protectors. As the Greek word in the title suggests, Côté creates drama from the tension between the space’s emptiness and the expectation—or memory—of its bustling occupation. In this sense, it’s an exemplary pandemic film, though stripped of that ostensible subgenre’s cutesy footholds. Scenes of human contact unfold as one-sided ventures: the woman engages in phone conversations with an anonymous interlocutor we cannot hear; an intruder appears asking for a light, like the woodsman in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), and launches into a deranged philosophical monologue that Côté captures in one shot without cutting to the protagonist’s reaction until the end. These flourishes underscore the setup’s dystopian bent while gesturing toward (but never confirming) the possibility of paranormal activity.
Though Locarno has, in recent years, lost some of its long-held credentials as a champion of experimental and independent cinema, with a curatorial shift toward more generic art-house fare and genre-inflected crowd-pleasers, I saw two films that suggested that the traditional vanguard spirit of the festival still survives. Both draw inspiration from the new modes of consciousness forged by 21st-century technologies. In Best Secret Place, by French filmmaking duo Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel, random people in liminal states—sleeping, for instance—are granted nightly access to a secluded warehouse that contains a kind of alternate dimension. A teenage girl, the realm’s newest visitor, tours the facility and observes its sundry marvels, which evoke the simultaneous limitlessness and inertness of video-game realities: an animated soldier walks around with his head chopped off; some of the other visitors shoot a music video with a camera that captures blank images; others fire at each other with enormous rifles that don’t inflict any real damage. Midway through the girl’s journey, abrasive electronic dance music plays over a montage of video-game death scenes in which assorted characters fall from the heights and splatter on the ground. As inane as these scenarios might seem, they come together with a melancholy lyricism, with the eerie “best secret place” less a haven of freedom than a purgatory of muted sensation. In this world, violence is razed of meaning and consequence, existing as it does in a vacuum of impermanence.
On the other hand, a sense of freedom drives the globe-trotting shenanigans of The Human Surge 3, Eduardo Williams’s long-anticipated follow-up to his 2016 experimental documentary, The Human Surge. In the first installment, Williams’s restless camera tracks young slackers in Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines, switching video formats as characters and locations change without the customary signposts. It’s a kind of jam-sesh about the internet’s cognitive footprint on places and people in the developing world, remote and disaffected yet immersed in the web’s porous networks. This fluidity is cranked up several notches in The Human Surge 3, which shifts disorientingly among its three locations—Peru, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan—bringing together twentysomethings from all three places into one roving, multilingual mega–friend group. (Note that there is no The Human Surge 2—the title of the new film pokes fun at the notion that these willfully uncategorizable films could be installments in a commercial franchise.)
If the screening technologies of blockbuster cinema—3D, IMAX, etc.—promise a more realistic experience, then Williams’s use of a 360-degree camera in The Human Surge 3 does the opposite: the convex perspective approximates the visions of Google Earth with characters only distantly, blurrily visible in their surroundings. As in the first film, the idlers essentially mill around and shoot the shit with no apparent aim or objective, but the new format’s flattened images and stretched edges call attention to the extreme constructedness of what we’re watching. But rather than functioning as a force of repressive surveillance, this artificial gaze is a tool of liberation, forging as it does a borderless realm rife with thrilling potential. In one moment, the camera abruptly tracks a bird’s chaotic movements through a canopy; later, the canopy morphs into an abstract whirligig of bright green as the group seems to transport to another location. When, toward the end of the film, the characters gleefully levitate and jump around the Andean mountains, they look like birds themselves. Williams imagines a world in which we are one with our online avatars—and better for it.
Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, The Criterion Collection, Artforum, 4Columns, and other publications.