Journeys to the Unknown

in 70th Venice Film Festival

by Yael Shuv

The competition at the 2013 Venice Film Festival contained a wide variety of films, some of them dealing with suffocating confinement, others with journeys to new horizons. Whereas Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence and Philip Gröning’s The Police Officer’s Wife (Die frau des polizisten) — both awarded by the main jury — dealt with severe abuse done by men to their wives and daughters within the cloistered spaces of their homes (leading to the women harming themselves to put an end to the perpetual abuse), I would like to focus on three films that took their heroes away from their home to unknown spaces, offering new challenges.

John Curran’s Tracks brought to the screen the true story of Robyn Davidson’s 1977 arduous journey through the wild Australian desert with four camels and a dog. This beautiful, layered and finally uplifting road movie is very rare in telling the story of a woman entering a mythologically masculine space and surviving the journey to reach the promised ocean. In the history of cinema, very few road movies told of journeys taken by lone women who set on their way of their own free will and reached their goal. Even the obvious precursors do not let their heroines complete their journey. In Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) — winner of the FIPRESCI and Golden Lion awards at the 1985 Venice Film Festival — there is a sense of confinement throughout the film which begins with the heroine’s death, and the flow of her journey is broken down by testimonies given by people who met her along the way. And in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise the heroines are thrown reluctantly into their escapade which ends with them flying off the cliff to their eventual deaths. In most other movies, the women somehow get stuck along the way, as in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. Robyn (the wonderful Mia Wasikowska), on the other hand, is a young woman who decides to set on a journey driven by her own unspecified reasons (except for the quote in the beginning of the movie, stating that she never felt at home anywhere). A National Geographic photographer (Adam Driver) follows her around, and she is willing, though grudgingly, to accept his visits only because the magazine finances her trip. They even have sex, but it doesn’t turn into a romance. Robyn insists on completing what she started, as she started it. Flashbacks in slow motion, gradually revealing that her mother committed suicide when she was 11, are a bit too conventional, but the journey is captivating and the sight of Robyn leading the camels is invigorating, without ever softening the harsh loneliness of it all.

Tom in Xavier Dolan’s Venice 2013 FIPRESCI winner Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme) also sets on a journey to the unknown, and finds himself struggling with his chosen identity. Tom (Dolan) is a city boy with disheveled blond hair. We first see him driving his car in the countryside, accompanied by a French rendition of The Windmill of Your Mind, sung by a woman and sending us on an interior trip. By the end of the song, Tom reaches and invades an empty country home with an adjoined farm. We gradually discover that Tom is here for his boyfriend’s funeral (we will never know how he died). The boyfriend’s mother Agathe (the superb Lise Roy) is stubbornly unaware that her son was gay, and his older brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is intent on keeping it that way. Francis is handsome, virile, and violently homophobic, yet he puts the moves on his dead brother’s lover (as manifested by a sensual tango he initiates in the barn), and Tom is drawn into a dangerously seductive and explosive relationship which he tries to escape again and again. He also puts aside his identity as an urban advertizing copywriter and plays with the idea of becoming a farmer, plaid shirt, cap and all. When Sara, the dead man’s pretend girlfriend arrives at the farm, things become even more entangled, but her presence (and a horrific glimpse of the future waiting for him if he stays) finally pushes Tom to save himself. Endowed with taut, rich and flowing film language (with a big soundtrack by Gabriel Yared), Tom at the Farm is a thrilling drama with a touch of horror that keeps us guessing. It is also a fascinating and multi-layered reflection on fluid sexual identities.

And then there was Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, if we are to believe his declaration, The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu). As in his previous films, Miyazaki’s flights of imagination take the form of flight, only this time he is making a film for adults, inspired by the true story of Jiro Hirokoshi, designer of fighter aircrafts flown by the Japanese pilots in World War II. Following the life story of a bespectacled kid who dreams of flying airplanes but knows he can only design and build them for others to fly, Miyazaki creates a pacifistic and poetic film filled with beauty, which is also a personal and soulful comment about the artist and his art. Without actually showing the fate of these planes and their Kamikaze pilots, Hirokoshi laments that none of them ever came back. Let us hope that Miyazaki will.

Yael Shuv