Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Jane B. for Agnès V. [1988]

 Biopics are a dime a dozen; however, rarely there’re those that boldly eschew conventional narrative norms while providing form-bending portraiture that’re essentially the director’s own subjective, variegated impressions. Jane B. par Agnès V. – Varda’s experimental, kaleidoscopic, mock-serious and impish depiction of British actress, singer and model Jane Birkin – most decidedly belonged to the latter bucket, alongside the likes of Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Haynes’ I’m Not There, Larraín’s Neruda, etc.; or for that matter, such audacious and ferocious semi-fictionalized biographies as Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, etc. Varda composed this episodic film along two parallel, criss-crossing lines. In the primary strand, the two ladies engage in freewheeling conversations and even banter; Varda teases Birkin about her celebrityhood and public/private persona; and Birkin in turn reflects on her life, love, career and vulnerabilities, and even bares herself to Varda’s slow-gaze. And these were constantly interjected with whimsical vignettes – Birkin posing as Goya’s La Maja Vestida and La Maja Desnuda diptych; becoming part of a Titian painting; teaming up with Varda as Laurel and Hardy; participating in an oddball skit with Jean-Pierre Léaud; impersonating a Western lone-ranger and flamenco dancer, playing Joan of Arc, etc. And they concluded their free-spirited tango with a discussion on Kung-Fu Master! – a marvelous companion piece to this irreverent collage – which was borne out of a short story by Birkin. The film’s fantastical sections were uneven and even outlandish at times, but what emerged was a lively, mercurial work which also curiously revealed – like an inverted image – a wry, engaging peek into the director too, and thus making her as important a protagonist as her subject.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Agnes Varda

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Biopic/Experimental Film/Fantasy

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Hotel Monterey [1972]

 Intensely personal, formally rigorous, complex and deeply ruminative inquiries into disaffection, dislocation, isolation and existential ennui – elements that would distinctively define Chantal Akerman’s filmography – started getting shaped during the 1 ½ years she stayed in New York as a 21 year old, where she was hugely influenced by the structural film movement. And these facets were vividly discernible in her boldly experimental and quintessentially minimalist feature-length debut Hotel Monterey. Filmed in the titular 1914 hotel – a seedy, lonely, run-down Upper West Side hotel which she sometimes frequented – it was shot over fifteen straight hours, over the course of a single night which extended into the dawn. This seemingly aimless work involved quietly exploring the foyer, elevators, passages, rooms, windows and balconies of this melancholic place; and it ended with glimpses of outside – as seen from inside – covering the Hudson River, grimy concrete buildings and the Manhattan streets. These vignettes were captured on grainy images through immersive long takes and a mix of steadfastly static and gently gliding tracking shots; further, most interestingly – and this made it even more radical in its conception and design, while also emotionally distancing to some extent – it was eerily and completely devoid of either ambient or non-diagetic sounds, thus making this perhaps more silent than many a silent film even. What emerged, as a result, was an intimate and observational piece of cinema where visceral responses to the mundane, monotonous images were foregrounded, therefore making this a tantalizing interplay between documentary, essay and even understated drama. Despite its physical interiority, it can very well be considered an introductory companion piece to her next New York film – the magnificent, masterful and haunting News from Home.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Documentary/Experimental Film

Language: Silent

Country: US

Friday, 7 May 2021

Chronicle of a Summer [1961]

 In 1960 sociologist and influential cine-theorist Edgar Morin and pioneering ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch – both were avowed leftists and anti-colonialists – collaborated on what’d become a seminal film blending social examination, political activism and formal fluidity. In its coinage of cinéma vérité and linkage with the direct cinema movement; amalgamation of ingenious handheld “walking-cameras” and “live” sync-sound techniques that’d revolutionize documentary filmmaking; and freely blurring the lines by placing real people engaging in faux settings, Chronicle of a Summer remains a perceptive, prescient, wry, radical, audacious and landmark work that influenced cinematic language and form like few films have. It starts with a disarmingly simple and yet deeply ambivalent question to Parisians, viz. “Are you happy?”, as a springboard for pointed inquiries into how they live, interact, experience, interepret, assimilate and contextualize; that the subjects were blue-collar workers, immigrants from French colonies in Africa, students, etc. imbued them with additional meanings. Further, they were made even more complex – though these contexts weren’t made explicit – by the fact that France’s colonial empire was fast crumbling; one participant, Marceline, was a Holocaust survivor; she and her former boyfriend, Jean-Pierre – another participant – were members of a militant antiwar group with ties to Algeria’s FLN; a 3rd participant, Régis Debray, wold join Che Guevara and thereafter languish in a Bolivian prison for 3 years; and another one, Marilù, would become an iconic photographer at Cahiers du Cinéma. The film was a fascinating, self-deprecating autocritique too; when, upon a screening of the filmed interactions some participants are either overly moved or berate what they either deemed phony or uncomfortably revealing, Morin and Rouch are sardonically compelled into re-evaluating their experiments in a new light.

 

 


 

 

 

Directors: Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: French

Country: France

Thursday, 29 April 2021

The Human Voice [2020]

 For his first English-language film The Human Voice, Almodóvar adapted Jean Cocteau’s renowned monodrama, and collaborated with Tilda Swinton who – with her deadpan pallour, restrained theatricality, and something unhinged on the brink of imploding – was apt for the Spanish auteur’s form and style. Almodóvar, interestingly, had loosely and freely adapted this play earlier in his wild, comical, gleeful Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and hence it’s quite fascinating that he returned to it – even if with hugely contrasting brushstrokes – over three decades later. Running at just shy of 30 minutes, this tantalizingly structured short is steadfastly centered on a wealthy middle-aged woman (Swinton) whose lover has gone for three days now from both her apartment and life. Though she’s packed all his stuff in black valise, she craves to see him one last time before he disappears forever. And in this mental state – an amalgamation of panic, fear, anger, self-pity, pain, depression and desperation – she purchases an axe, gulps down sleeping pills, and then engages in a long, rambling, emotionally volatile conversation ostensibly with her former lover, though it’s never really clear if it’s indeed him or a manifestation of her crumbling sanity. Swinton gave an arresting turn with some of her self-deprecatory comments eerily close to her actual persona, and that, along with the histrionic monologue, added satirical and darkly funny touches to the melodrama. The quintessentially vibrant art décor, lush score and use of Brechtian elements (perhaps as an alternative to pandemic-related restrictions) made this quite delicious at times, even if its brevity and ambiguities made one feel that a longer runtime would’ve done fuller justice to its thematic and narrative arcs.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Short Film

Language: English

Country: Spain

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Paris Calligrammes [2020]

 There’s something beautiful about a young person breaking free and carving out an uncharted path, and then her older self looking back years later. Ulrike Ottinger – experimental German filmmaker, painter and photographer – left home at 20 for Paris in 1962, making this city her home instead until the end of the 60s; and during these heady years she’d immerse herself in its throbbing cultural scene, become part of its rich émigré circle, befriend intellectuals and trailblazers, witness the political hotbed, and find her voice as an artist. Paris Calligrammes, her absorbing, eclectic, vibrant memoir is a portrayal of this unforgettable period from her life. It’s therefore packed with memories, experiences, nostalgia, anecdotes, adventure and bittersweet reflections, even if recollected and posited from a vantage point, as the director and the protagonist – separated by five decades – were surely two very different individuals. But it wasn’t just that; it was also an intoxicating time capsule, an ethnographic study of a city with myriad shades during an epochal period, and an engrossing mosaic of people and moments. This diary film comprises of diverse interconnected facets – Fritz Picard’s bookshop Librairie Calligrammes, a legendary melting pot, where she loved hanging out; Johnny Friedlaender’s studio where she lmearned lithography; indulging the flâneuse in her while exploring the city’s locales, from Saint-Germaine and Latin Quarter to Bouquinistes, cafés and jazz joints; becoming an avant-garde painter by dabbling in pop-art, Dada and surrealism; falling in love with cinema at Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française; and her tryst with Holocaust remembrances, the Algerian War and 1968 student protests. These enthralling, impressionist, kaleidoscopic vignettes were vividly evoked through film clips, news reels and photographs, accompanied by her serene voiceover.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Ulrike Ottinger

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Diary Film

Language: German

Country: Germany