Fear of a Message

in 34th Moscow International Film Festival

by Alexey Gusev

The films of the 34th Moscow Film Festival competition turned out to be surprisingly varied in quality, form and themes. And this was not the “profile of a process” that the selectors like to talk about so much when they want to justify their framework; there are no justifications, for example, for the appearance of Spanish 3D animation The Apostle (O Apóstolo) in a feature competition. But, amid such an apparently casual selection, it is all the more significant that a number of the selected films had one tendency in common.

This was an arrangement of several plotlines that intertwine with differing degrees of capriciousness; a type of construction that could quite fairly be named “Altman-esque”. Three films at least satisfied this definition completely: Aku Louhimies’s Naked Harbour (Vuosaari), Peeter Simm’s Lonely Island (Üksik saar) and Kenya Marquez’s Expiration Date (Fecha de caducidad).

This definition could also be applied to some other films in the Moscow competition. But, for instance, in the case of Yevgeny Pashkevich’s Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg (Golfstrim pod aysbergom) any serious consideration would be an unwarranted flattery. Apparently, three sketches about eternal Adam’s first wife Lilith through the ages had to present three different manifestations of one myth (or, to be more precise, of an archetype). But in fact this film seems to reflect a pattern of replicating an early post-Soviet cinema miraculously carried from the beginning of the ’90s to modern times without any corrections: furs, mirrors, nudity, pounds of mascara (double-effect, naturally), a meaningful (and very loud) soundtrack, unshakeable fright on the actors’ faces (there are some good actors in this film, but you’ll never discern them) because of high-flying rubbish, and Anatole France’s name in the credits as an (unconvincing) alibi. Whatever author of this mind-boggling hybrid of Intolerance and Emmanuelle wanted to express, his craft didn’t provide any chance for his message to become apparent.

Among the three films mentioned above it is Naked Harbour that perhaps has the most careful and painstaking script but also the most average direction. Parallel plots, which are variations on a theme of “love’s labour lost”, are invented and written out subtly, wisely, and diversely. But in the end of nearly every scene the director scrupulously puts in a long close-up of the current protagonist that has just encountered a new occasion for grieving about the vicissitudes of life and the impoverishment of feelings. And the protagonist grieves without a hitch, and yearns, and is sad, and is undecided, and so he keeps on grieving, and the director, accordingly, keeps his close-up. It’s Antonioni-like by theme, and Altman-like by composition, but as for intonation, it’s as overly sentimental as a deeply pitiful city ballad about orphans or homeless kittens. The ending sees two young characters (who loved but were too timid) sing with karaoke a song about the sweet hereafter, and their faces lighten steadily, while the camera pans over a snow-covered Helsinki. There are so many different human lives and unrealised hopes inside these buildings… but in the end, some day, all is sure to be good. Time after time, the director importunately underlines his delicacy and sensitivity for manipulating the viewers’ ability for empathy, and, in fact, this merely displays his distrust for this ability.

Lonely Island is a little like Naked Harbour: the same unhurriedess, the same ordinariness of situations, the same city environment. But while Louhimies’s connecting link is a theme, Simm’s one is an image: a train. The most cinematic of images is led by the director through all the scenes, but continually changes its function: it can be employed by a character, or be an Anna Karenina-like character itself, or a blank page for a love letter, or a messenger of trauma and disaster, or even, in a more sophisticated instance, a good example of the distance between life and art. As opposed to Louhimies, Simm is free of the sin of sentimental reverie, and the slowness of narration makes Lonely Island not watery but, on the contrary, dry and laconic. While the Finnish director presses the viewers’ feelings, the Estonian one appeals to the fixity of their look. But a polyphony that Simm has constructed is so intricate that its convergence in a final chord would have necessitated some entirely puzzling stunt (as Altman did in the finale of The Player or Short Cuts). Instead, the director makes all ends meet in a most plain, most literal way: he forces his characters to fix up all their troubles and to come to agreements urgently. Finally, father is reconciled with son, committer of an accident is reconciled with victim, investigator is reconciled with suspect, and school mistress is so reconciled with her pupil that she becomes pregnant. Perhaps, it might have even worked (forgetting good taste) if such cinematic multi-strandedness were motivated by general discord between the characters; but the construction was primordially declared as an author’s means of narration, not as a style defined by the material. But in the end the author prefers to shift responsibility to the screen world that he had invented himself. When it comes to the crunch, the author adroitly hides behind the scenes and, as a “souffleur”, compels an emergency mass reconciliation among his characters.

Kenya Marquez’s film is the only one of all those mentioned — and, generally, one of a few in the competition — that did not provide any reason to fault its conclusion. Its three sections (named after the three main characters’ names) are located sequentially, but the construction isn’t less ingenious than the previous parallel ones. The same mysterious story about a decapitated head (which subtly points towards Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia) is told thrice — from each character’s point of view. There are two hidden traps in this structure. Firstly, although some particular scenes start to make sense when they are repeated from another point of view, the main “detective” question (of who cut off the head and why), in spite of one’s expectations, is left unsolved. Secondly, some details begin to change slightly when they appear again in another sketch. For example, two of the three main characters go by car through nighttime industrial scenery; in the “driver’s sketch” traffic is rather heavy, but in the “passenger’s sketch” (since the passenger is very lonely) the scenery is empty. She doesn’t notice the traffic, he does. These minor variations don’t take up a decisive part in the general story, but they gradually undermine its solidity; the director definitely learnt classical Rashômon lessons by heart but reduces them to references. A dangerous venture, but Kenya Marquez succeeds in it — first of all, thanks to what is unexpected for a novice (and, generally, very rare nowadays): an austere, Lubitsch-esque, prudent film language syntax.

The problem of finales wasn’t mentioned above for nothing. Probably, the main reason of multi-plot constructions’ popularity in modern cinema is the dramatic volume that they can provide; a film immediately becomes many-sided and, in the end, objective “as a life itself”. All options of multiplicity of points of view that were presented at the Moscow Film Festival — views on a myth (Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg), on a theme (Naked Harbour), on an image (Lonely Island), and on a plot (Expiration Date) — try to achieve this aim. But the problem of inner balance and of wholeness of intonation that directors who undertake to manage this type of dramaturgy solve first of all is not really the sole one, and, perhaps, not even the main one. No matter how many stories form a film, it nevertheless can have only one common conclusion. And the more complicated a film is, the more risk of triteness threatens the film director when he faces the necessity of this united finale.

A very significant instance of this problem is Junkhearts (the Grand Prix winner at this Moscow Film Festival). Providing the final salvation of the main character is a minor plot about his neglected daughter; a very sparse plot without any formal reason for appearance except for introducing somebody to reunite the hero with for the finale. In other words, this parallel sketch is reduced to the technical purpose of “alternate airfield” for the protagonist, and in fact is just a reserve for the scriptwriter who couldn’t find any inner resolution of conflict. It’s some kind of “reverse logic”: the sentimental triteness of the finale here is not an effect but a symptom of the complicatedness of the structure.

Cinema art is an art, in particular, because every film once over forms a closed composition that provides a concreteness of message. An all-out phobia of definiteness that rules in modern culture leaves authors under its influence the choice of only two options: a trite finale or an open one.

The fear of a message, of the responsibility for being definite, of seeming to be an ideologist and a mentor impels directors to “objective” multi-plot structures, and the same problem dooms these structures to fail when a film reaches its end. The greater the volume, the greater the difficulty of a final reconciliation. If one is not able to pass onto the other, higher level of image generalisation (as in Altman’s films), he will inevitably come down to karaoke repertory maxims; to copybook morality. If one is ready just to show a complexity of life in detail without any obligation to research it and make any conclusions, he will notice everything in life but its sense. And all that viewers will take away from his film are eternal verities like “Love is good”, “Love is a miracle” and “All you need is love”. Thanks, we are in the know already. You shouldn’t make one more film just for this.