Several films in the New Directors competition at the Chicago International Film Festival this year suffer from a common problem – they are character sketches, not fully realized movies. It’s as if these novice filmmakers spent all their energy coming up with a main character, figuring out his/her back story, problems and relationships, then ran out of steam before developing an appropriate journey for that character to go on and a satisfying place for the character to end up. The films thus feel incomplete. All the elements for an interesting film are present, but they do not come to life in a story worth watching.
An example is Pale Eyes (Les yeux clairs), the second film by French director Jérôme Bonnell, who won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2003 Chicago film festival for Olga’s Chignon. Pale Eyes centers on a mentally-ill young woman named Fanny, (Nathalie Boutefeu, sharp and compelling despite having little to work with), who lives with her caring brother and impatient sister-in-law. Fanny plays piano, asks questions about her dead father, throws fits, and retreats into sulky silence. The film alternates between showing how exasperating she is to live with and how sad and misunderstood she is. These two points could be made in a few initial scenes, but instead the director wastes half the film making them, over and over again. Finally something happens: Fanny gets violent with her sister-in-law and madly drives away in the family car. She drives and drives (more dead cinematic space), then we see her meet a foreign man who lives in the woods, visit her father’s grave with him (an empty cinematic gesture, devoid of any sense of reckoning), then gradually warm up to this foreigner in some sort of bucolic fantasy of nature curing mankind’s troubles. Fanny ends up driving away alone, but we have not gotten to know her better or to invest in what happens to her. She’s simply a troubled woman to whom the filmmaker has given a brief (and contrived) moment of peace. Don’t we deserve to see her grapple with the larger problems the film sets up, like how to live independently, understand why her father shut her out, and make amends with her brother? These questions are too important to remain unexplored.
Another underdeveloped film is director Juan Solanas’ otherwise intriguing debut feature, Northeast (Nordeste), a dual character study about a French businesswoman named Hélène (Carole Bouquet) who travels to the remote Northeast region of Argentina looking to buy an orphaned baby after her attempt at legal adoption in Buenos Aires falls through, and a poverty-stricken Argentinean named Juana (Aymará Rovera) struggling to raise her thirteen year-old son while hiding an unplanned pregnancy from her married lover. From this set-up, it seems obvious that these women are on a collision course, and yet Solanas ducks and dodges the inevitable. To the film’s credit, as it unspools the viewer does not know exactly what will bring the women together. Early on, Juana terminates her pregnancy, thwarting our expectation that Hélène will eventually adopt her unborn child. Solanas has Hélène undergo a journey in which she comes to appreciate the complexities of trying to adopt a child in this part of the world, while Juana is forced to learn that her circumstances could make keeping her older child, let alone having another one, agonizingly untenable. These are worthy and interesting journeys, but Solanas fails to bring them together and resolve them. After Juana loses her home and Hélène loses the baby she’s tried to buy, the film ends with Hélène sitting in the hospital with Juana’s older son. We don’t know whether Juana has died and left her son for Hélène to raise, or if Hélène will adopt Juana’s son with her permission, or perhaps take both of them back to France with her. All three of these possibilities are legitimate endings that still require a little exploration, but Solanas refuses to pay off what he’s set up. He takes his two main characters on a journey, and then abandons them just when they need him most.
I do not propose that all films need to answer every question they’ve posed, wrap up all loose ends in a tidy bow. But for a film to feel satisfying, it at least needs to push its characters to deal with their problems and hint at likely directions for their future. Pale Eyes and Northeast stop short of fulfilling these essential tasks.