Dark and Bright Mirrors

in 38th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Léo Soesanto

What is a film critic? Outside the knowing circles, to friends, parents and taxi drivers, (s)he is a lucky person, watching films for free, getting paid (well, most of the time) for praising or bashing them. They are soaked with celebrities’ glamour (they spend two minutes with them). They seem a bit useless. Inside the circles, film critics are a changing species — I don’t want to write ‘endangered’. Some disappear (in the US thanks to redundancies), most of them discuss, all of them are challenged by the Internet, which at the same time is a golden mine (information, reactivity) and a quicksand (where opinions muddle, where inspired-sometimes-not internauts want to drown professional critics). This 38th International Film Festival Rotterdam raised the questions in an oblique way — there were no debates, no molested film reviewer as far as I know.

First, there was the screening of Lionel Baier’s Another Man (Un autre homme) in the Spectrum section. Funny one, which also gave us some forced laughs. The film depicts François, a young, slightly aimless Swiss critic stuck in a local newspaper. He tries to raise his level with in-depth reviews that he copies from a high-brow French revue. The character is also attracted by a woman, a manipulative and famous senior critic. Another man is woolly and sharp at the same time: the black-and-white, the sleepwalking frames are very comfortable — whether Baier shoots a conversation or a drive in the snowy Swiss countryside. In this climate, symbols even seem to lose all their too-obvious, see-what-I-meant sense, such as a dead fox found by the main character who tries to be ‘sly as a fox’. The film mocks splendidly our milieu, with its press screenings, its vanities and common places. With Baier, critics’ discourse becomes a Duchampian ready-made. It causes anxiety and absurdity as in a Eugène Ionesco’s play: “A bad Claude Chabrol film is naïve and has a TV movie quality; a good one is a sharp dissection of bourgeoisie”. Another Man, besides its tale of ambitions, is a very sensual film thanks to actress Natacha Koutchoumov as Rosa Rouge, probably the most fascinating critic seen on screen since George Sanders’ Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. She brings acidic wit, bends genders and contributes a lot to a certain love scene with chopsticks.

Watching this, the average critic is amused and sees a dark reflection of him(her)self, culminating with a sex scene between critics during a screening (I never thought about that, really). But Baier, who confesses having learnt a lot from our fellows’ writings, gives us hope with the last scene — with François interviewing a legendary actress. François learns there that patience and silence can be assets for a critic: self-criticism indeed. I felt myself some kind of weariness, remembering what critic Andrew Sarris asked Kent Jones one day: “Do you think we’ve wasted our lives”? [watching films]. Do I work honestly, trying not to write a review in automatic mode (“another coming-of-age story…”)? Am I too snobbish (Well, a little)? Do I write nonsense? (“critics’ discourse becomes a Duchampian ready-made”). But during the festival, the FIPRESCI winner Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly was the kind of film which challenged us as critics, bending issues of taste and what to expect from a film. I found some energy back.

And thankfully, the Trainee Project for Young Film Critics organized by the Festival also brought some light. The ‘kids’ (under 30) came from all over the world, invited to cover the festival and discover realities of an international environment (watching films, writing, watching films, writing, rushing to the bar): Camila Moraes (Brazil), Philbert Ortiz (Philippines), Brandon Harris (USA), Gaetano Maiorino (Italy), Yoana Pavlova (Bulgaria), Paula Ruiz Rodriguez (Spain). They all participated to our FIPRESCI discussions and we were most impressed by their energy and dedication to the ‘critics’ cause’. After one frantic week, the trainees confessed they found what they had looked for: films, deadlines and cultural exchanges. “I was really impressed by Blind Pig and some Indonesian films which opened my eyes to this country” (Paula Ruiz Rodriguez). “I was surprised and delighted by the Dutch audience’s response to Philippines’ films: there is a really a universal understanding”(Philibert Ortiz). They were trainees, enthusiastic but not naïve at all: “I know that people will keep reading criticism but I’m just worried about the viability of our profession” (Brandon Harris). “We have to adapt ourselves: if we only write on films, we’ll fall out the picture” (Yoana Pavlova). “As critics, we need to make a network, not stay on our own” (Gaetano Maiorino). What is a film critic now? (S)He’s made of lust for films, caution with reality and a subtle dose of naiveté: when I told French director Jean-Claude Brisseau during the Festival that I tried to watch a lot of films each day, he answered me “Oh yes, I was like that in my old days”. I suddenly felt like a trainee.