The Mavericks: Experiments in the Foreign Language Oscar Field

in 14th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Robert Koehler

In the flurry that is the Oscar race, films that dare to genuinely experiment with form are treated with the kind of neglect with which a family may treat their crazy uncle. Underlying this neglect is a fear of the new, a deep-seated nervousness with the prospect that comfortable formulas and methods are being brought into question, sometimes radically so.

Yet this doesn’t apply only to Hollywood and independent films vying for Oscars. The neglect of the experimental generally extends, as well, to the annual roster of films in the Oscar’s foreign-language race. It’s one of the more disheartening aspects of the entire Oscar season: Countries’ film commissions, charged with selecting one title among multiple candidates, frequently choose to send to the American Academy the movie they believe would most likely appeal to voting Academy members. That almost always translates as artistically safe films, made within an extremely familiar framework, engineered above all not to challenge, but to please and massage an audience’s predisposed feelings.

This, of course, opens up a truck-load of cultural issues, some of them entailing how countries—producing films under extremely different conditions and with contrary cultural and even aesthetic values to Hollywood—try to either find the movie that mimics Hollywood style and attitude, or worse, adopt codes and practices that enforce this mimicry in the filmmaking. The encouragement, through funding screenwriting contests by national and trans-national organizations, of the standard Hollywood three-act dramatic model (with the winner being the one that best adopts the model) is one of many examples.

Given this set of problems, it wasn’t surprising to find that, among the 45 foreign-language Oscar submissions that I viewed before and during the 2003 edition of the Palm Springs Film Festival, few attempted any formal—or, for that matter, storytelling—experimentation at all. In this space, I want to touch upon the few and the brave among the submissions that actually tried to push the limits of cinema.

The bravest among them was certainly Gyorgy Palfi’s “Hukkle” (pronounced who-kluh), which displays an extraordinarily fresh approach to visual storytelling. It is interesting how even those who love the Hungarian film (and it is truly dismaying to encounter, as I have in multiple cities and venues, critics who either openly hate or dismiss Palfi’s fabulously original work) have wrongly compared it to such visual “tone poems” as “Microcosmos” or “Baraka”. “Hukkle” is only comparable to, well, itself, a sui generis work of comedy and mystery that seriously believes in cinema’s original mission, which is to tell a story in pictures.

This task remains one of cinema’s most radical projects, and Palfi instantly qualifies as a true radical. By use of a highly perceptive camera, precise editing and a decision to do away with dialogue altogether, Palfi composes a quilt of connected images and motifs. Among several thematic patterns he sets up are, on one end, flat-out, perfectly timed gags (such as an old Beckettian figure on a bench who repeatedly hiccups—the title plays on the sound—and, at crucial moments, stops), and on the other, a profound study of how we all exist in a massively complex and interconnected food chain.

A beautiful, funny and disarming example of the latter is a scene where Palfi’s camera impossibly goes underground, burrowing right alongside a groundhog, sustaining the shots and scene to a length where we are one with the groundhog: The food-gathering groundhog has become, as the old man, a horse or a cluster of factory workers had before this point, the center of our existence as a viewer. With a swift, startling smash, a club invades this underground peace and kills the groundhog, and Palfi cuts above ground, revealing a peasant woman collecting up the dead creature. What had been the movie’s hero a moment before has now become a pest to be done away with.

This is precisely where “Hukkle’s” greater meaning intersects with its form, for the film dares to silently, freely enter and exit the worlds of humans and non-humans, compelling the viewer to equate the positions of both. It contains the substance to bear up under the analysis that it is a kind of animal rights movie, visually embodying the notions of philosopher Peter Singer, who has long argued for the elimination of an anthropomorphic hierarchy of humans and nature.

Yet, for all of this, “Hukkle” also weaves—again, with no obvious plot points and simply imagery to guide it—a murder mystery whose full impact is suggested only at the end, when we never saw it coming. Like the very different “Memento’” but with far greater subtlety, “Hukkle” immediately forces the viewer to fall back on their own perceptions of what they have just seen, to reconstruct events, to review and repeat the visual patterns and complete the full details of the mystery. It is a movie, as few others are, that begins and ends in the mind’s eye.

Though it’s perhaps less of a formal tour-de-force than “Hukkle”, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “Le Fils” also demands that the moviegoer readjust perceptions from the norms assumed by conventional filmmaking. Again, it’s a film thoroughly despised by some and loved by others (it has been thus since Cannes), unjustly dismissed by yet others, and quite easily misunderstood.

This is probably to be expected from a film that takes on all of the usual bits and pieces of a family drama–including a father recovering from the brutal murder of his son; a mother whose recovery appears to have barely begun and who divorced the father in the wake of the tragedy; the entry of the son’s murderer into the lives of both father and mother—and reassembles them in an entirely new way.

The Dardennes’ most extraordinary aesthetic choice, and the one that drives their critics up the wall, is to deny the viewer both information and a conventional point of view. The creation of a work of art is usually seen as the act of addition, accumulation; “Le Fils” is a dramatic example of the work of art that subtracts, excludes. Although this formal approach has been so well-established in painting, sculpture, music, architecture and photography that there have been counter-responses to it, and then responses in return, this rigorous manner has rarely been applied in narrative filmmaking.

One is tempted to adopt the well-known music term to describe it—minimalism—but that fails to do justice to what is achieved in “Le Fils”. It starts with the camera: The Dardennes position their lens either directly behind or at a one-quarter angle to the central character of Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), the aforementioned father and a carpentry teacher. This is no mere trick, however: Olivier is seen at the film’s beginning already in a slow-boil of a crisis, nervously aware and eavesdropping on a new student, with the viewer continually trying to keep up with him.

“Le Fils” proposes a different way to observe characters in action, instilling in us the same kind of growing tension that Olivier feels as he comes face to face with his son’s killer. Even more remarkably, it recycles that tension in a kind of cinematic feedback loop: The nerve-wracking denial by the Dardennes of the viewer’s usually privileged position produces a layer of visual drama that is amplified on screen as the confrontation develops to a climax. Albeit with quite different techniques (including a non-stop stalking, hand-held camera), the sophistication of the use of mise-en-scene to produce the accumulated drama in “Le Fils” recalls Antonioni’s extremely sensitive use of his camera to evoke moods of unexpressed emotion or the oscillation between various states of being.

Finally, what might seem to be a repressively intellectual manner of framing and staging actually produces even more heightened emotions than other conventional approaches would deliver. This works in two ways. First, the insistence on one-quarter views of characters—recalling an old painterly tradition of suggesting a subject’s identity by eliminating three-quarters of their face—allows the viewer to fill in, to imagine what the character is thinking and feeling. Second, during critical moments when, for example, Olivier is viewed full-frontal, the revelation is all the more powerful.

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s “Mon-rak Transistor” proved to be a triumph of inventive storytelling, not so much by the denial of dialogue (“Hukkle”) or point-of-view (“Le Fils”), but by the athletic combination of all sorts of storytelling devices and traditions. Although Ratanaruang (“Fun Bar Karaoke”, “6IXTYNIN9”) is a director with an unerring, Kubrickian sense of the exactly right place to position the camera, he is not fundamentally a visual experimentalist like Palfi or the Dardennes. Instead, the feeling his movies – and especially “Mon-rak” – give off is the sheer giddy joy of cooking up a delicious stew of a tale, tossing as many items into the pot as needed, but far more than conventional filmmakers would consider sane.

He adopts the usually overworked device of voice-over narration to frame his story of the adventures of Pan (Supakorn Kitsuwon) through contemporary Thai society, but consider who he selects as the narrator: A humble prison guard in the jail where Pan ends up at the lowest point in his journey. We never quite know if the guard, speaking to us in full Brechtian disregard of the “fourth wall”, is a reliable narrator, just as we never see how he was able to glean all the details behind Pan’s odyssey. The potential for the telling of a tall tale abounds in “Mon-rak”, and it is what gives the film its air of goofiness slipping on the banana peel of tragedy.

The grand model adopted by Ratanaruang, though, is the picaresque narrative, which traditionally follows a young man on his wildly uneven journey through a society’s strata, encountering a rainbow of types, and usually ending in a dawn of self-knowledge. The wonderful achievement in “Mon-rak” is how Ratanaruang adheres to the picaresque verities—he even concludes with bringing Pan back home to his long-neglected wife and children in a deeply emotional reunion—while subverting them at every turn. Pan’s dream of a being a pop singer is never realized, for instance: In fact, it is comically, cruelly denied him.

After this trio of films, experimentation was glimpsed in only rare and fleeting spots in the rest of the field. More often than not, these were touches, or attempts to revive past experiments. Tso-chi Chang, in his fine Taiwanese family drama “The Best of Times”, embraces much of Ho Hsiao Hsien’s mise-en-scene, observing characters in groups for extended shots and at great distances. In his spectacular swordplay adventure, “Hero”, Zhang Yimou borrows heavily from the playbook of Wong Kar-wai – particularly his sole period drama, “Ashes of Time” – by way of emphasizing the pure movement of fighting over any narrative or psychological concerns.

Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti’s Cuban lark, “Nada”, strives to revive the rambunctious energy of the experimental Cuban filmmakers of the ’60s, while dabbling in some interesting if overused visual tricks, such as black-and-white cinematography constantly invaded by the color yellow. Umit Unal’s “9” fashions a murder mystery strictly from the elements of six police interrogations of witnesses and suspects, feverishly intercut in a structure that continuously advances the plot. Unal’s experiment, though, is strikingly limited: For one, it is a single-track approach to visually assembling a story that quickly becomes a device, and then, rather suffocating; for another, this is simply plot-driven experimentation, which, in the final analysis, isn’t really experimentation at all: It leaves nothing but plot behind in its wake.