Au revoir l’été and The Owners: When films need a life of their own.
Regarding Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’été, my first session on the 9th day, it is predictably impossible to start in any other way than with Eric Rohmer; it’s not just all over it but also in almost every copy on every festival website or every article and review of it – and in the ones that don’t mention him we feel the deliberate omission. The outline of the narrative is the same – hiatus in the central character’s regular life – and it doesn’t take long to target the elected choice.
The comparison between Fukada’s film and Rohmer is not just essential because of its clear desire to evoke Rohmer but also because both the strengths and weakness of the film come from that referent.
In Japan, far from Tokyo, we follow a girl who joins her aunt, during the last days of August and beginning of September – a very appropriate time for changes – in a trip to a coastal town for vacations / study purposes.
As opposed to Rohmer’s Pauline à la Plage, from which it definitely takes the template, what was a generational schism there is more of a familial one here, of filial nature to be exact – as it is often so solidly in oriental tradition (Japanese, most of all). The ensemble is organised almost in the same way as in Rohmer’s film – an older woman and a girl / an older man from the older woman’s past and a boy; a more recent man in the older woman’s life and a young woman who will be linked to him. The difference in the group here are the familial connections between them, which is one of the main issues at stake in Fukada’s film and takes the focus from the moral (in Rohmer) to the filial, since even actions that could raise moral reflection here instead break the way to filial projection (in the audience and the character) – this is a film where (virtually) no one feels connected to its parent(s) and rather uses others as figure substitute.
While this major shift of focus is mainly benefic for the film, making it less dependent on the blueprint, instead using it wisely to create it’s own universe – one coherent with its time, sense of history and cultural subjects – it’s in the position which the central character (the girl Sakuku) occupies in the game that I find its biggest trouble. Exactly like Pauline in Pauline à la plage Sakuku is an observer. But while Pauline is an active observer – who knows everything that is happening to everyone but chose to not use the information and whose involvement is less determined by a need to live than a need to observe – Sakuku is a passive one, a contemplative observer if you like it, who prefers to step back to gaze at the vistas and gets more often caught in situations than deliberately chooses to be in them. It is this sketching of the character as an almost lethargic memories collector – of other people’s lives mainly – that weakens the film, even more when that position is never fully assumed and worked in depth as a radical decision or incapability of Sakuku herself. It seems instead that, in trying to have the same dynamic as in Pauline, the director has forgotten about Sakuku as the ruler of the game and makes her, by default, a static spectator and sometimes a pawn, to be honest. Without her vision we are just left with a nice summer breeze, a quite forgettable one, and the group dynamics and intersections lose their value. Rohmer is obviously not just evoked by the film’s narrative structure but also in its style in an evident attempt to draw his clear and precise framing and stripped down revealing photography. Well, what looks simple and effortless in Rohmer trademark style always seemed to me very difficult to achieve and it’s due to Fukada’s naive belief of its easiness that the film seems really to fail. Never dull and with solid performances but already gone as a fleeting memory. As a memory of somebody else’s life.
The second and last feature of the day was The Owners (dir. Adilkhan Yerzhanov). It is a film of an admirable visual composition, with highly stylized (from the framing to the colour palette) shots that, per se, are sometimes enough to mesmerise you. The way they work when putted all together is something of a different nature.
Quite early in the film we are introduced to some absurdism (both in its mundane and philosophical sense) that later develops into magical realism (hints of Kusturica) and, through means of deadpan humour, laconic expression (bits of Kaurismaki) and kafkian elements, result in, above all, a parabolical object. Yes, quite a lot of name dropping, which is not only necessary to describe the tone of the film but also to fairly translate how its nature and structure are developed around an agenda of themes and recur to all said elements as mechanical devices of demonstration (asking and immediately answering) rather than reflection or evocation, thus closing the spectator’s way to any questioning, any ambivalence: every object, character, word or movement are invariably constrained as a symbol, a representative of something else.
The story is of three siblings who, unable to keep on living in Kazakhstan’s biggest city Almaty, move to a small house they inherited from their mother in the countryside. Then they find an oppositor in the village’s thug leader (who’ve been living in the house illegally for years) and later in everyone and everything surrounding them. Throughout the film we watch their misadventures while trying to fight for their right to justice and property in a society based on corruption and violence. We watch them walking to death, having no chance to overcome their obstacles and perishing one by one, in a terribly grim (but not really nihilistic) depiction of individual rights in Kazakhstan’s contemporary society. From the three siblings (two boys and a girl) one is less schematic – due in large part to Yerbolat Yerzhan strong presence and performance – and the cinematography and style are visually stunning but the feeling is a bit the same as attending a class and everything imminently cinematic is suffocated by that didactic feeling.