go to index page
websites of interest the writings of Bill Mousoulis the films of Bill Mousoulis go to home page
The writings of Bill Mousoulis

Melbourne International Film Festival 2000 -
capsule reviews


Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards!    (Seijun Suzuki, 1963, Japan)        My first taste of Suzuki. It starts in third gear with a wild yakuza shoot-out, and pretty much continues at that pace. And there's undoubtedly a distinct style to this director - his cinemascope mise en scène is quite accomplished (and not that showy either). There's an interesting hyper-reality to proceedings. But, for the main part, the film is all ride, plot, deflection - there's nothing more substantial (emotionally, philosophically) to go with.      (6)

Story of a Prostitute     (Seijun Suzuki, 1965, Japan)         Another Suzuki, and quite different. Cinemascope again (and with some pretty amazing camera movements), but this time in B & W, and with a more sedate style. To the point where one could label this film "dreary". Although Suzuki actually punctuates the plodding plot with moments of lyricism and experimentation. As Philip Brophy says in the MIFF catalogue, Suzuki's films are "not unified in style, content or even tone". Thus, the director has sympathy for the group of prostitutes in this film, but at the same time he reduces them to screaming messes (not helped by the bad acting), constantly mistreated by the men.       (6)

Shower     (Zhang Yang, 1999, China)           A mild, modest film about familial connection. It's a pity the script gives us so little back-information on the central character - even a five-minute spurt would have been handy in locating us in his journey. As it stands, he is a cipher thrust into a particular situation. But, psychologically, his story is familiar to us, so it's not too problematic. The bathhouse world he enters is lovingly captured by the director and cinematographer. Its "residents" create a nice back-drop to the story. The old bathhouse gets knocked down in the end, of course, but the connection between the characters gets built up.         (5)

Angst      (Daniel Nettheim, 2000, Australia)           The Australian "20-nothings" (as I like to call it) genre seems to be thriving currently. Comparatively, this film isn't as good as Fresh Air, but it's far better than City Loop or Strange Fits of Passion. The design, locations and cast are right there, true and effective, but the script and direction are as shallow and callow as the main characters. It's a light film, but you wouldn't call it a "comedy" - it goes for pathos at times, but it can't get out of its groove of hipness/irony/referentiality. Even the house cat is referenced ("Cronenberg"). And nothing is real. (But they'll grow out of it ...) Films like this make us realise how good the youth films of Pialat, Téchiné, Rohmer are. Love and other Catastrophes has a lot to answer for.       (4)

The Colour of Paradise     (Majid Majidi, 1999, Iran)          I love Iranian cinema, but not the work of Majid Majidi. His The Children of Heaven is an absolute stinker, manipulative and sentimental. This one is much better, and it even includes some subtle touches, but Majidi's clunky hand as director is still evident. His sense of mise en scène is incredibly crude, and the same goes for his lighting (no, it's not the DOP's fault - the director dictates). There is a total lack of artistry here - Majidi frames his subjects dead centrally, and lights them with the worst flat and full lighting that you can imagine. This man just doesn't believe in shadows! I'm harping on about this because I really think it needs to be said. Especially considering that his films are popular, even with festival audiences. He is just simply a really bad director.         (3)

Beau Travail         (Claire Denis, 1999, France)         Like an exotic sweet, this is a rich and unusual film. As a treatise on masculinity, it could be ground-breaking. In this, it remarkably goes two ways: on the one hand, there's its aestheticisation of the male physical form; on the other, its probing into the murky, bristly depths of male-to-male psychological combat. Surely only a woman could have made this film. The first half hour, before the (let's face it, rather conventional) drama kicks in, is a dream - langorous fragments roll by, sensual yet also strangely realistic (the camera is even hand-held at times). The film drifts a little towards the end, but concludes with a great symbolic scene, a frightening and transcendent Dance of Death (to match the beautiful Dance of Life at the start of the film). A film which seems to be missing a few things, but a fascinating piece of cinema nonetheless.        (8)

I Can't Sleep        (Claire Denis, 1993, France)           I dream of films like this: no drama, no centrality, subtlety everywhere, a modest humanity (even humanism). This seems to me a finer achievement than Beau Travail, which has a grandiose aspect to it which mars it. I'd love to teach a scriptwriting class with a film such as I Can't Sleep, so I can point out its myriad incidental details (which seem like tangents, but are really indices). The abrupt cutting and the decentralisation of the narrative are reminiscent of Godard, but Denis doesn't "philosophise": she simply (but with dexterity and beauty) shows this little thing, followed by that, followed by that, etc. In the process painting a broad landscape of dislocation, terror, survival.          (8)

No Fear, No Die       (Claire Denis, 1990, France)          An earlier film of Denis', with her form still shaping apparently: structurally, this is quite conventional compared to the later films. This story of cockfighters is still engrossing, however. Denis obviously has no fear when composing her studies of male pride (and its offshoot: destruction). Beau Travail is like a hymn compared to this film - the men in this film quickly spiral out of control, and there is little sense of redemption. Moreover, if cockfighting is the metaphor here, with the real subject being the men, then - who has set these men fighting with each other? God? Denis?          (7)

What is Life?         (François Dupeyron, 1999, France)           Cinemascope pic of French country life, with hard times come upon a farming family. Somewhat laboured, and clearly composed of two separate stories, but with some nice sequences towards the end which ultimately make it a reasonable experience.         (5)

The Virgin Suicides       (Sophia Coppola, 1999, USA)              Not sure about this one. It's like an offspring of Carrie and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but without the power of the former or the lyricism of the latter. It seems to run along, we don't really feel anything for any of the characters, and then it ends. Then again, it's not offensive in any way.        (5)

New Waterford Girl    (Allan Moyle, 1999, Canada)        Generic chick teen flick, complete with the requisite inward small town, disruptive outsider, awkward heroine. A similar film to the director's previous Pump Up the Volume, but lacking the verve and existential urgency of that earlier film. But there are incidental pleasures: the locations, the clothes (alternative and casual '70s), some of the songs, and the lead actress' presence.       (5)

Chocolat        (Claire Denis, 1988, France)         Hard not to view this one retrospectively, through the experience of Denis' latter films. Formally, and in its energy, this debut of hers is totally different. The pace is slow, the narrative construction straightforward. Maybe it's the Cameroon heat, and the banal life the colonialist inhabitants have to live there. But the film springs to life in touches here and there, and there is an undeniable honesty and warmth to the director's overall touch.         (6)

I Prefer the Sound of the Sea       (Mimmo Calopresti, 2000, Italy)        The crisp, contrasty cinematography here perfectly suits this film's feel. This is an example of cool, dispassionate Italian cinema á la Amelio and Martone. This is an engaging portrait of modern Italian life, with the North and South poles of it clashing. The characters are inscrutable at times, but they clearly have their own truths, and Calopresti expresses them with ease and sympathy.     (6)

Nowhere to Hide       (Lee Myung-se, 1999, Korea)         A beautiful B & W pre-credit sequence gives way to lashings of stylish, colorful cinematic tricks. The film runs like Wong Kar-wai without the melancholy. Which is roughly what fails it in the end: it's a visually exciting cops-and-robbers thriller-cum-comedy but without much of a story to grab onto or feel anything for.         (6)

Spring Forward        (Tom Gilroy, 1999, USA)        This like a mild version of Jon Jost's studies of mid-American men. It's composed of a number of lengthy scenes - this is either a theatrical-like flaw or a brave stretching of cinematic time. I would lean slightly to the former, but there's definitely something splendid in the way this film proceeds moment to moment. And, unlike Jost, the view Gilroy has of his men is positive and optimistic.        (6)

Nothing     (Dorota Kedzierzawska, 1998, Poland)          Seemingly engulfed in the film's golden brown patina, the beleagured mother/wife has nowhere to run to, no-one to turn to ... she has nothing. This is a claustrophobic, unappealing story. But the director has a trick up her sleeve: the form. As the film progresses, with its myriad shots through wire, curtains, leaves, etc., and its almost hallucinatory time and space shiftings, it becomes clear what the form is doing: it is matching our poor woman's emotional state, one of hazy depression.       (5)

Bad Company       (Jean-Pierre Ameris, 1999, France)       When we see a person (on the street, or on the news) found in a debased state, we may wonder about how they got there. This film charts such a journey, of a seemingly "nice" 14-year-old girl, and how she ends up a certain way. The French have a monopoly on the "teenage psychological drama" genre, and this is a fine addition (to films such as Travolta and Me, Wild Reeds, Set Me Free, etc.)       (6)

Of Women and Magic      (Claude Miller, 1999, France)     Miller's The Class Trip from last year was a cool, restrained, measured film, quite unlike this newer one, which adopts a more direct and pacier approach. But both films have a sense of terror underlying their proceedings. Not much is made of the whole magic/witchcraft thing here, but just enough to make this film quite amusing. Dogme-like, the film is shot on video, and the results look quite good.      (5)

Branded to Kill       (Seijun Suzuki, 1967, Japan)        Jo Shisido as the hitman - and what a wonderful presence he is. This is a very stylish B&W 'Scope gangster pic, with some highly erotic sex scenes, and with much sly, dry humour to boot. I like the editing especially - it is sharp and surprising, creating an overall structure that is angular and very unconventional. This film is quite unlike the two other Suzukis I've seen so far in this festival - it is stylised, assured, entertaining.        (6)

Sensitive New Age Killer       (Mark Savage, 2000, Australia)       This hitman story seems to start off in Ghost Dog mode, with a primal (childhood) scene that creates a certain type of killer: a "sensitive" one, who protects the abused, killing off only those "who deserve it". But this idea is abandoned almost immediately - so much for that (and the whole title, of course). But it doesn't matter - this is a pure action film, not a philosophical or evocative one. And I was pleasantly surprised by it - the director has some great skills, in the way he stages and cuts everything. The film is still typically Australian in that the script is overly self-conscious and verbal, but also un-Australian in the sense that the director seems to have a will (i.e. some confidence/assurance, unlike most Australian directors).        (6)

Throne of Death       (Murali Nair, 1999, India)          This film is wicked. In the course of just 60 minutes, it morphs from a Satyajit Ray-like humanist document to the wildest anti-state and anti-American black comedy you could imagine. It is as daring as all hell, seemingly stripping the main character of all his dignity, just in order to make a political point. But it's complex too: the "marytred" man's presence permeates the film even when the film is in satire mode, and his wife is painfully aware at all times of what is happening. As a film that hybridises dramatic and satiric modes, and then clearly transcends them with a mysterious, spooky power, this is right up there with Haynes' Safe.       (8)

The Wind Will Carry Us       (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999, Iran)          It seems that Taste of Cherry has inaugurated a new cycle of films/concerns for Kiarostami, as this film is clearly working off it, quoting it, reworking its key themes, etc. But it's quite different and unique too. The Iranian obsession with highlighting the cinematic apparatus (simultaneously with filming a story) is still here, but so craftily woven into the narrative that only keen observers will pick it up. And it is riotously funny. Even Godard in the '60s was never this funny when it came to provocative narrative construction. But this film is also very poetic, and moving (but mainly afterwards, and always surprisingly). The last scene is sublime, and undoubtedly a nod to Bresson's Mouchette. But there is so much to this film that one could talk about it forever. There is no other director working in the world today who is as formally inventive as this.        (9)

Songs From the Second Floor      (Roy Andersson, 2000, Sweden)        With my head still swimming in the Kiarostami, I was never going to get much out of this film. This is High Black Art, with all manner of grotesqueries on show. Stunningly filmed in widescreen tableaux (which run for several minutes each), this is a wild surrealist parade, ultimately superficial. Not my cup of tea, but undeniably strong.        (6)

Nenette et Boni       (Claire Denis, 1996, France)        After the coolness of I Can't Sleep, Denis obviously decided to adopt a more intimate style for this film: the compositions are tight, the camera searches for the characters. And what faces it finds! It's clearly Boni's film, and his characterisation is really rich. Denis piles on the realistic, troubled details, some of them unexplained, and then, in one scene, she just lets go and it's pure fantasy: the baker and his wife do a sublime eye-jig to the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows".        (7)

Eureka        (Shinji Aoyama, 2000, Japan)          There's something beautiful about this film, the way it stretches its timeframe to the 3 and a half hour mark. Not that it entirely works however - the stilted quality is to the film's detriment a lot of the time. But occasionally the film goes in for "money shots", and they work well. It's somewhat in the Kitano register, but without actually showing us the violence.        (6)

Audition       (Miike Takashi, 1999, Japan)          The casting couch will never be the same again. A film producer's audition ruse backfires horribly on him - moral of the story: be honest from the very start. Like in Eureka, a childhood primal scene forms a murderous personality in an otherwise normal character. To the extent that the killer (girl) in the film is totally blind to her victim's good intentions. A very impressive performance by the actress too, in both innocent and evil modes. Her torture methods had dozens leaving the cinema. It seems they couldn't tell the difference between reality and cinema. How would these very people react in a real life torture situation? A director to watch.         (6)

Djomeh        (Hassan Yektapanah, 2000, Iran)         Debut film from this Iranian director, with few of the flourishes found in Kiarostami or the Makhmalbafs - a simple story, a simple style. The 20-year-old lad in the story finds himself in a tough situation, and he handles it with dignity and clarity. The social and cultural conditions around him eventually overwhelm him, but there is a sense that he'll make it through. This film has a quiet power to it.      (6)

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie      (Luis Buñuel, 1972, France)       L'Age D'or, in the early '30s, could have been a once-off, as the subsequent decade or so was proving. But Buñuel came back and had a great career in his 50s, 60s and 70s, his vision very much intact. This film could easily be compared to L'Age D'or. It is like an older, wiser, subtler version of some of its themes. It is quite fun watching the stars in this galaxy revolve around each other and be invaded by all types of strange aliens (a bishop-gardener-murderer) and black holes (dreams within dreams).     (7)

Viridiana        (Luis Buñuel, 1961, Spain)        Not sure what this film is doing in this "The Surreal Feel" retrospective - it works within a more finely-tuned social/political framework. There seems to be a Vertigo influence running through it at times, especially in the casting of Sylvia Panal. There's no doubt that characterisations in Buñuel lack depth and believability, and that his narrative structuring is quite wayward, but there's also no doubt that he was a cinema genius, able to juxtapose themes and styles in unique and exciting ways.       (7)

George Washington      (David Gordon Green, 2000, USA)         This is by a young film director (25 or so), and it will be interesting to see what becomes of him. There's no doubt he possesses some talent, but it is quite raw (this film drifts badly) and somewhat uncertain (interesting formal devices sit next to more conventional techniques). The film is too ambitious - the characters seem older than the actors, and the acting can't quite bridge that gap. That said, to have a film propelled by the poignant, Badlands-esque narration by an 11-year-old girl shows some imagination.     (5)

Speaking of Buñuel       (Jose Luis Lopez Linares / Javier Rioyo, 1999, Spain)         For a 90-minute documentary, this is a fast-paced and rich collection of interviews and clips. (At times too fast - witness the L'Age D'or section.) It juxtaposes Buñuel's own voice-over (acted, the reading of extracts from My Last Sigh) with clips from his films (which illustrate real-life incidents) with various interviews (from the present and past, including with Buñuel). A collage effect is almost produced, and I'm sure this would have pleased the Don. The film doesn't try to eulogise him - it shows him as a light character, full of paradoxes. (For example, there's his close friendship with a priest in the weeks leading up to his death - what one would do to be a fly on the wall there!)        (6)

Janice Beard: 45 WPM       (Clare Kilner, 1999, UK)         I have a dream film in my head: a rites-of-passage realist drama centred around a young woman (say, 25) who is plain, a bit naive, resourceful, who has to undergo a crisis of some sort, and then makes it through to the bitter-sweet other side, with her heart and mind intact, and with a positive outlook still in place. Janice Beard: 45 WPM isn't quite this film, but it's a pleasing stab at the genre. The plot is pretty silly, and it aims for comedy rather than impressionistic drama, but the presence of Eileen Walsh as Janice is really wonderful. There she is: plain, kooky, spirited - my type of heroine!        (7)

L'Age D'Or        (Luis Buñuel, 1930, France)        This film is a scorcher. Before this year, I hadn't seen it for over 10 years. I've now seen it three times in the last few months, and I can't get enough of it! The opening two sequences (the scorpions and the soldiers) are somewhat tedious, but after that it's like one explosion after the other. But it's not just anarchy or anti-establishment actions on show - there's also great romantic passion, and even a searing mysticism at times (the dressing table mirror sequence, of course, but also the "sleep" sequence in the park). And what artistry with the soundtrack! For example, in the aforementioned mirror sequence, where music is mixed with the cow's bell and the dogs' barking. Or the last sequence, where the insistent (five minutes!) marching drums suddenly give over to the snippet of (ironically triumphant, full of flourish) music that accompanies the film's killer last shot. This film is unbelievable.     (9)

Simon of the Desert       (Luis Buñuel, 1965, Mexico)          This Buñuel retrospective has taught me that one shouldn't be too grave regarding Buñuel's "position" on things, especially on the Church. His portrayal of priests is quite affectionate at times (see the priest-violinist in L'Age D'Or, or the priest-gardener in Discreet Charm), although, of course, cardinals and popes don't get off as lightly. Simon of the Desert is a fascinating film - a 45-minute essay on sainthood, temptation, the modern world. It is a subtle (and, yes, quite sly) satire on the whole business. And it is much fun. For example, in one scene, Simon is on his pillar, high up in the sky, saying a prayer with his arms outstretched, when he suddenly goes into casual mode, asking: "Where are all the flies today?" Typical Buñuel.        (7)

The Exterminating Angel       (Luis Buñuel, 1962, Spain)        Maybe this film seemed a good idea at the time. It now comes across as a one-joke film, the joke extended to 95 minutes, and simply circling around itself. The central idea is brilliant, but the details are lifeless. I've said it in an earlier entry in these reports, but I'll say it again: Buñuel is essentially a shallow artist. He works best with snippets and juxtapositions. In this film, spending 85 of the 95 minutes trapped with the silly bourgeoisie in the loungeroom, he doesn't know quite what to do.       (5)

High Fidelity        (Stephen Frears, 2000, USA)         "High fidelity / Can you hear me?" is one of the great lyric-lines ever. Strangely, this film doesn't reference the Elvis Costello song it's taken its title from. But there are many other songs referenced - this film is a music-freak's delight. And there's something very rewarding cinematically about giving much screen time to a record store location. And I've always wanted to seat Bruce Springsteen next to Stiff Little Fingers. But these are all minor, incidental pleasures - the film itself is very flawed. The characters are demeaned, and the story is shallow.        (5)

Violence Elegy       (Seijun Suzuki, 1966, Japan)        A timid boy becomes a brutal man - and "manhood" in Japan circa 1930s has no relation to womanhood at all. It's not a question of that "manly" mistreatment of women - it's a question of the total avoidance of them. This film is violent, but also extremely comic. I love the "Aizu" sequence, where Suzuki cuts into a close-up every time the word is used. This is wild filmmaking.     (6)

Nothing to Do       (Marion Vernoux, 1999, France)         This is very similar to A Pornographic Affair, but heaps better. It probably helps that the director of this film is a woman. And Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (the baker's wife in Nenette et Boni) puts in a star performance - her reach exceeds her grasp at times, but she produces great vulnerability and hurt in her housewife character. This film could be seen as a conventional contribution to the debate on the battle of the sexes, but I think it deserves more than that: even for the man (Patrick Dell'Isola), Vernoux gets inside and extracts something true and complex. Nothing to Do shows A Pornographic Affair up for what it is: clinical and stupid.       (6)

Little Fellas        (Jacques Doillon, 1999, France)           This is my first taste of the renowned director Jacques Doillon, and, really, it is so exciting witnessing someone's unique style for the first time. Little Fellas opens with a bang, as we're thrust into our spirited heroine's troubled and debased world. We're almost in Kids territory here. The film then somehow stalls, maybe catching the dissipation of its characters. But this then becomes its hidden beauty: in every other film of this ilk that we've seen, a gun entering the picture could only result in a tragic killing. Instead, this film finishes with a kids-playing-adult wedding ceremony, tinged with a strange optimism. It's this open-ended quality that really makes this film interesting.         (8)

Bread and Roses      (Ken Loach, 2000, UK)          Prolific filmmakers can be a bit of a worry. Especially when their range (formally, thematically) is not great. And Loach is clearly one of these. Some of his recent films (My Name is Joe, Land of Freedom, Ladybird Ladybird) have an emotional intensity to them that keeps them fresh; others (like Carla's Song, Raining Stones, this one) are made on auto-pilot, and meander badly at times.      (5)

Blackboards        (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000, Iran)        Maybe it's retrospective hindsight, but watching this film, you can tell that the director is only 20 years old. There's a lack of formal system. But there's also a tremendous rapport and intimacy with the characters (or "people", seeing as they're all playing themselves). See the way Makhmalbaf Jnr. films the baby boy when he's sitting on the ground playing with the walnuts - it strikes me that no "adult" director could have imagined or filmed this shot. Overall, this film is raw and engaging. Iran rocks. (Sorry, bad pun.)       (7)

Festival Wrap
by Bill Mousoulis:

One could easily criticise MIFF, but I prefer to look at the positives. Sandra Sdraulig has turned it into a popular and mainstream-leaning festival, but not at the expense of dumping the obscure art films, the docos, the experimental programs. And this year's festival seemed about to burst constantly, so much range and content did it have.

I attended 43 sessions, and somehow missed going to any of the forums (when there's so many films to see, after all ...). Nothing really surprised or disappointed me. I saw the films that I knew I'd get something from, and so I didn't see that many bad films (only The Colour of Paradise and Angst). But whilst many of the films that I saw were okay and even quite good, only a select few (listed below) really pushed my buttons.

I saw three of these highlights for a second time. Janice Beard was the same the second time around: spirited, quirky, but light. Beau Travail seemed to lose a lot of its strangeness and beauty on a second viewing, maybe because by this stage I'd seen Denis' other films and was accustomed to her style. But the opening and closing dance scenes are right out there as far as I'm concerned. Finally, The Wind Will Carry Us became unbelievable second time around. Jokey but profound, bland but resonant, cryptic but simple, this in an out-and-out masterpiece. The moment-to-moment play (and emotional building, mind you) is hypnotic. I've never connected Kiarostami to Rossellini before, but watching Wind again, I felt it was operating in a similar mode to Viaggio in Italia. And you're not gonna get a bigger compliment coming from me! And this was my last MIFF session too - a perfect way to end the festival.

Top Ten films that played at MIFF 2000, including retrospectives, in preferential order:

1. L'Age D'or      (Luis Buñuel, 1930)
2. The Wind Will Carry Us     (Abbas Kiarostami)
3. I Can't Sleep     (Claire Denis, 1993)
4. Beau Travail     (Claire Denis)
5. Throne of Death      (Murali Nair)
6. Little Fellas     (Jacques Doillon)
7. Janice Beard: 45 WPM     (Clare Kilner)
8. Blackboards      (Samira Makhmalbaf)    
9. Simon of the Desert     (Luis Buñuel, 1965)
10. No Fear, No Die      (Claire Denis, 1990)

© Bill Mousoulis August 2000
This review first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.8, July - Aug 2000