Ways of Seeing, Violet and Snowpiercer: Triumphant excesses on a quiet 5th day.
On the 5th day of the festival (a Sunday, appropriate resting day) most of my sessions were tepid and drowsy except for the excesses provided twice by either hyper blockbusters or something very like it: a short which in its nature plays with everything tangential to it and a proper dystopian sci-fi – action packed flick that insists on sabotaging most of the rules that make it bear that name. Those were Mona Blonde (dir. Grazia Tricario) and Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. In between just empty streets, never mind where.
Mona Blonde is one of the shorts in the part of the Ways of Seeing programme and it is all about it: perception, looks and the fitting of the self based on its projected image. It could well be just another film about it – and the pre concepts of gender, beauty and sexuality – if it wasn’t for two brilliant aspects of its construction concerning style and narrative structure. It is a portrait of a female bodybuilder, on the top of her career, assaulted by an unexpected and disruptive pregnancy. From the beginning, in the amazing intro sequence, the film plays with the notions of film genre as much as it dwells on human gender – and all that comes with it: sexual orientation, aesthetic patterns, etc – one echoing the other. It is striking how in such little time in that sequence, so many clichés of film genre or subgenre (and the physical types that are assigned to each) are evoked by all its stylistic codes and without being detached from the film (i.e. used in a satiric way) but quite in an opposite way, assimilated by it. And so Showgirls and Terminator go hand in hand opening the way through the common and quite limitative feeling of shock you get from her body at first.
The second of those aforementioned aspects is the unbalanced structure conducting the film. Everything is played on excess – music, framing, camera moves, cinematography and specially narrative – making Mona’s world and actions resonate her physique and taking the audience in an ever rising trip to the top; her trip, to perfection.
From other films on this session I shall mention Christmas with Chávez (dir. Jim Finn) a very clever idea of working speech and image to expand on the perception of a moment or a figure – here with a double dimension – which is also a quick portrait of the former president of Venezuela Hugo Chavéz, in all his contradictory persona.
Now to the empty streets. My next film was Violet (dir. Bas Devos) and to accurately describe it I shall just say how much of a compendium of all the clichés of contemporary teenage coolness it is, and not just in its content but also in its form. This story of Jesse, a teenage boy, who sees his friend being killed in a shopping mall and his grieving process it’s inseparable from its location, a middle class American-like suburban neighbourhood in Belgium, and at some points seems to be a movie less about the grieving process per se than about the impossibility of grieving in such a non-place – only the living can mourn the dead, and here they are all dead. But then it’s not that at all. The film itself is a non-place like that neighbourhood, the appropriation of everything that belongs to urban subcultures (caps, hoodies, bmx) and turning them into props, as those kids do, is what the film does too. Everything is dormant, bland and lethargic – the camera, I mean – with no vision, no perspective, like Van Sant with no soul. It seems to be trying hard to be delicate and intimate only getting to be generic and devoid of life, not to mention its instagram post-production looks, with incessant and unbearable out of focus vignette style, except for some few good shots, namely the last sequence: Jesse’s father wakes up and his son is nowhere to be found; we see him go and search for him in a still shot, from inside the house, and it’s just when he comes back with Jesse in his arms that the camera starts moving, as if trading places with the kid, going down the street and passes his bike in the middle of the road (in the most comforting possible silence) before disappearing in the white mist of stillness. Even though, what worries me more about this session is the fact that is part of Teen Spirit, a program curated by kids, and this seems to be an example of their perception of what cinema is.
I ended the day with Snowpiercer and it was like I was out of the Festival for a night and into a typical Sunday night multiplex session, only a good one, a really good one. Snowpiercer is all a blockbuster should be but cannot at the risk of failing as a blockbuster so it is more of a study – never ceasing to be entertaining and adventurous – on how the structure of action sci fi blockbusters can be used to reach a mainstream audience without being soulless and insulting. That was what Bong Joon-ho did before with The Host – with even better results – and it is a serious prove that a film of this kind can be both entertaining and meaningful. In The Host the director used the monster movie genre to tell a much more intimate family story, doing it with perfect balance – how many try to do this and fail; Godzilla was just the most recent one – and here, beyond the rollercoaster ride (for real) there’s a insightful comment on human nature, and the beauty of it is that is not the one on class systems, dystopian societies, and social oppression, that is just the first layer with almost the same value as the action hero prototype or any other necessary device. The study here is a much more nihilistic one, on human craving for self destruction, how we position ourselves in a group or landscape and what is the value of our thought and strength as opposed to the nature of the material world.
Besides this: lots of great characters – some a bit too much on their own show – and amazing fantasy sets. Full of plot holes and incoherences, I’ve heard. I guess as much as any other fantasy tale is, if you overlay a “real world” blueprint on it. Real world is usually your default personal perception of the world so get over it; I had a great Sunday night.