Bad Behaviours: Three Films of the Festival de Cine de Gijón/Xixón
During the 60th year of the Gijón Film Festival, I overheard a heated, dinner-table discussion about how we, as spectators, relate to cinema. Films often show us bad, evil, immoral or amoral, thoroughly disagreeable people, involved in what are, by any estimation, very bad behaviours. And not only as catalysing villains positioned off to the side of the story, but sometimes – increasingly so today – as central characters in dramas or comedies of films and television series. The question arose: why should we endure this ugly, frequently unedifying spectacle? Is there anything that can make the experience worthwhile? The escape-hatch answer that arose from this dinner group came in resounding unison: there has to be some crack, some glimpse of humanity (however small), that makes this extreme character relatable to us as viewers (Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher  was offered, typically, as a positive, model example.). If not, the time we spend with the movie is just a nasty waste.
I harbour long-held doubts about this generally accepted, humanist wisdom. I’ve always been intrigued by films that show us characters who are frankly unrelatable in their extremity, in their particular badge of Otherness. Isn’t cinema made for this kind of shock and provocation, as much as it is made for the therapeutic balm of familiarity and mirror-recognition, of “seeing ourselves on screen”? Therapy comes in many forms, and disconcerting estrangement is one of its salutary vehicles.
Rather than argue this matter out theoretically or philosophically here, I turn to three striking cases presented during the Gijón Festival. They are: Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini from Austria, Isabelle Stever’s Grand Jeté from Germany, and Estertor from the Argentinian team of Sofia Jallinsky & Basovih Marinaro, all dated 2022.
Rimini marks out typical Seidl territory. Flat, symmetrical frame compositions; bleached-out colour scheme; characters in long-held wide shots; no conventional music score; jet-black humour from go to whoa. Only the settings, and the occupation of the main character(s), change. Since we are in Italy’s Rimini (Seidl’s companion film Sparta  – both were originally conceived as parts of a single project – was shot in Romania), the director’s gesture is anti-Fellini: search in vain for the beach parties and erotic hi-jinx which characterised the Master’s recreated memories of his birthplace in Amarcord (1973).
And the anti-hero? This time Seidl paints the indelible portrait of washed-up pop-ballad singer Richie Bravo (brilliantly incarnated by Michael Thomas, who also wrote the super-kitsch song repertoire). Playing (to a pre-recorded backing tape) the decrepit tourist resorts of Rimini, flogging his back-catalogue merch, hanging out in his private hotel (abandoned because of the pandemic?), prostituting himself with female fans who are, like he, long “past their prime”, and even stooping to a bit of blackmail, Richie is a total horror. And – as frequently in Seidl – the beds are dirty, the flesh is fat and sagging, the conversations are null and void. Life as a sad and entropic cliché. Seidl tends to be parsimonious with plot moves, but the significant spike in proceedings occurs here with the arrival (as in many a contemporary family drama) of the adult daughter who Richie has barely known. Just don’t expect any sentimentally redemptive closure on this point from Rimini; the film offers a gruesome cruise through the ports of alienation, affectlessness and amorality. Seidl manages to have it both ways: he damns the emptiness of modern life, while humorously exploiting its reigning stereotypes of race, age and gender. Another cinematic look into the abyss where – even the director proclaims this – humanity can still be flickeringly reignited. Whether the spectacle of slow rebirth or agonising death (stake your interpretation), Rimini is bleak fun.
Just as, in Rimini, everything leans (a little too heavily) on the historical allegory of a now-senile father who occasionally betrays the signs of his Nazi past, Estertor (a highlight of Gijón’s programming) places at its dark heart the catatonic figure of a bed-ridden old man with an undoubtedly evil stake in the worst part of Argentina’s 20th century history. A team of so-called carers (beautifully played by the ensemble cast) do just about everything but care for this guy: they mock him, shove food in his mouth, paint his nails … and even allow (for a price) those aggrieved by the man’s past actions to enter his room and abuse him in various ways. The comedy here is in a higher, more frantic key than in Rimini, stoked by the claustrophobia of the quasi-theatrical space in which almost the entire piece plays out; as the general amorality spreads, the inhabitants get progressively more banged-up and bruised. Estertor (meaning something like “last gasp”) cuts off at the highest point of catastrophic hysteria; the lights come in and we find ourselves cheering this grand, exhilarating show of bad behaviour. Jallinsky & Marinaro – occupying a very different place in Argentinian cinema than, say, the El Pampero collective – are figures to keep a close eye on.
Grand Jeté is very much in the Elfriede Jelinek mode – centring on a ballet rather than a piano teacher. It explores “transgressive” terrain (Georges Bataille & co.) that, despite being well-worn, still manages to shock and uncomfortably confront some spectators. It’s easy to miss, in the early scenes, the plot set-up: that teenage boy whom Nadja (sensational singer-dancer-performer Sarah Nevada Grether) meets and is subsequently picked-up by in the street is, in fact, the son she bore when very young, and (as in Rimini) scarcely knows. He’s into BDSM sex-club nightlife, and she’s after anything that will subdue her array of physical and/or psychosomatic pains. What unfolds is a dramatic essay on perverse “maternal feelings” (Nadja’s own Mum pinpoints the issue) that intermingled, for me, the premise of Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna (1979) with the masochistic self-care/harm process of Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002) – all filtered through a concerted style (involving blur, motion, light and colour, relentless deframing of bodies) that recalls the experiments of Stephen Dwoskin (Behindert, 1974) and Philippe Grandrieux (Malgré la nuit, 2015). Grand Jeté didn’t find many fans in Gijón, but I admired its all-over, determined freakiness. Unrelatable? You bet (or hope) – and that’s why I liked it so much.
© Adrian Martin, 23 November 2022