Short reviews of selected films from this year’s festival
By Sascha Krieger
Se rokh / Three Faces (Iran / Director: Jafar Panahi) – Cannes Film Festival
In 2010, Jafar Panahi was banned from making films for 20 years. Three Faces is the fourth film he’s made since. This time, after being caught in a taxi or his own house, he has a little more room: he haunts his home region, the villages his family came from, a safer place for him than Tehran. Not a freer one though, as his film shows. The beginning is stark: a horizontal cell phone video shot by a girl apparently committing suicide. „This is not a film“, his first post-ban effort was called, „we’re not making a film“, Panahi keeps saying during this one – the beginning makes this statement, too, loud and clear. There is a documentary feel to this film, a sense of uncertainty representative of Panahi’s situation, of the female protagonists of the film – who all bear their real names – and the society depicted. It is a patriarchal one, full of often absurd rules such as the elaborate honking ritual to ensure safe passage on a narrow mountain road when it would be so much easier to just make it wider. Panahi depicts such episodes with glee, with a sly humour and a lightness of touch that astonishes.
And that is also present in the film’s more serious moments. Whether it is the old man handing his son’s foreskin to Panahi for good luck or the girl threatened by her family, her fiancé’s relatives and social rules because she wants to study performing arts: the film tackles all of them with the same softness, the same optimistic smile, the same humourous lightness.For they all belong in the same world: the absurdities of everyday life are symptoms of male stubbornness and therefore results of the same entrenched patriarchy that almost drives the girl into suicide or that leaves star actress Behnaz Jafari who plays herself and the recipient of the girl’s alleged suicide video, so insecure, vulnerable and volatile, fully aware of her fragile status which is shown to her in the mixture of adoration and contempt she encounters. She may be a star but she is first and foremost a woman – and in this world it equals being seen as inferior. The three faces of the title are all female: the girl Merziyeh’s, Behnaz‘ and that of Sharzad, a banned pre-revolution actress stubbornly resisting the hostility of her surroundings. Hers is a face we never see, a shadowy figure banned to the fringes of perception but not going away.
The film plays with perspective, with the seen and unseen. Often the camera remains on a face with another remaining invisible. Or it focuses on a object, a door, a windshield. Much happens outside its frame, outside the narrow confines that represent the fixed gaze and limited scope of life society allows its members. The characters move in and out of them, seemingly arbitrary at times, they disappear in the distance and emerge from them only to move out of the frame again. Everything is uncertain, nothing can be trusted. Panahi – appearing in his own film as himself as he did in its three predecessors – seems not in control even when he is, mirroring his own situation which he sees reflected and multiplied in that of his heroines, who are on society’s fringe on more than one level – as actors/performers and as women. At the ver end, we look through a shattered windscreen (another symbol of the camera-eye told to shut by a higher power). A woman leaves the car, moves ahead, freely, unstoppable. Another runs to her, joins her. the man stays behind as all males do in this film. An image of freedom, of hope, laconic, subtle, with the same soft sense of humour, the same unflinching optimism permeating the entire film. When there’s no hope, hope abounds. From stubbornness and absurdity. And the will to defy the odds. Which this film again does in the most beautiful, touching, entertaining and complex way imaginable, translating a stagnant reality into its own brand of dry poetry. A cry for freedom, softly whispered from a kindly smiling mouth.
Wildlife (United States / Director: Paul Dano) – Sundance Film Festival / Cannes Film Festival
At first we see the smoke in the distance. Then a car door opens and we can hear it: a distant rumbling, getting louder slowly but consistently. The face of a boy in his early teens, astonished, wondering, a little scared. Some distant flames. The, the boy goes back into the car off screen, suddenly the entire forest is ablaze, closing in quickly, threateningly, unescapably. It is the key scene in Paul Dano’s directorial debut, a moment encapsulating the entire film. As suddenly and unexpectedly as the fire consumes everything in its path, certainties crumble, relationships collaps, realities implode. A series of faces: a man’s, a loving father who shuts down from one moment to the other after losing his job, his face suddenly years older, harrowed, stony; a woman’s, cheerful mother turned ice-cold and red-hot at the next second, unraveling, slitting up into fragments without warning; and the boy’s, an innocent open face, a bit shy, a little cautious, becoming more concerned, confused, a touch angry even. Things change, quickly, radically, hardly noticable. For it’s all in those faces which Diego García’s camera focuses on, often putting them one after the other in series of single glimpses, moments cut out of time, solitary satellites veering off their orbits.
Based on Richard Ford’s eponymous novel, Wildfire takes the viewer back in time. To the early sixties, an America full of confidence, the demons well hidden away but slowly raising their heads. A patriarchal time where the man earns the money and the woman manages the house. And also to that other distant past, the first blossoms of puberty, the beginning of that process we call growing up. The film remains within the family unit. Only one external character really enters, an agent of the „real world“ where things aren’t easy. The perspective we share is young Joe’s (a nondescript name given to him because it allows him to become anything he wants, his mother explains). The reactions in his face, the trust, the incredulity, the fear are what tells the story and Australian talent Ed Oxenbould is phenomenal in his openness, his quiet curiousity, the seismographic quality of the tiniest changes in his facial expression. Carey Mulligan gives the performance of her lifetime as a mother whose identity crumble and who begins drifting along trying out one role after another, losing herself in the process. And then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal, quiet, full of pent-up anger, a truly lost soul.
The film is told in close-ups, faces mostly centred. Every now and then a bird’s-eye view, the human just a dot in the vast, beautiful, cold, deadly landscape of mostly uninhabited Montana. The camera hardly moves, encapsulating the characters in crisp, often darkish, always chilling, rather desaturated colours and rigid frames, their roles and expectations they have a hard time escaping from. Sometimes, the camera starts moving, for example when Joe tries to run and then doesn’t, revealing a shift, caused by an autonomous decision. These can change the world and so the film concludes with a series of miniatures in which the characters begin finding their own ways, themselves, even if it means giving up their illusions. Decisions which make it possible to face each other and themselves again as demonstrated in the intimate, touching final scene (according to Dano the one he first envisioned and the source of the entire film), a beautiful, slightly humorous display of awkward emotions and stubborn insistence. A subtly poetic hint at an emancipation that perhaps one day might go beyond the personal sphere and change this rigid world as it did this prototypical family unit. It is an ending as fragile, fleeting and deeply intimate as this quiet miracle of a film.