Sunday, June 24, 2012

14th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 13th - 17th, 2012)

Seeing eighteen movies over five days is an intense experience, and it actually takes a great deal of stamina, physical as well as mental, not to mention some meticulous planning and scheduling.  My week at the Provincetown Film Festival was a fun time yet again this year, and I met a bunch of interesting people, including YouTube sensation Chris “Leave Britney alone!” Crocker, Jake Shears’ adorable boyfriend Chris Moukarbel (who directed the new HBO documentary about Chris Crocker), and Mr. Kirby Dick, who’s easily one of my favorite documentary filmmakers of all time.  I enjoyed most of the films that I saw enough to write about them, but I’ll focus here on a couple of documentaries and a couple of narrative features from this year’s festival.

David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague, winner of the award for best directorial debut at this year's festival, is the film that I was most excited to see in the line-up, and it also turned out to be the film that made the greatest impression on me.  I already knew about the ACT UP years of the AIDS crisis, having come of age during that era, but I’d previously learned only a little about the intricate details and main figures of the movement.  The exploration provided in the film is both particular and vast, presented in a way that’s narratively textured and at times profoundly moving.  The film’s climactic moment, in which members of ACT UP poured their loved ones’ ashes onto the lawn of the White House in response to the government’s inaction at the height of the epidemic, is an image that I will never forget.

The best aspect of the film, however, was how it introduced me to a number of important activists whom I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, particularly the late Bob Rafsky, whose final tirade in the film is incredibly powerful, and one of the key survivors of the film’s title, Peter Staley.  Staley was a young bond trader in New York when he was diagnosed with HIV, and he bravely went head-to-head with many people in positions of power, including conservative kingpin Pat Buchanan, in order to save his own life and the lives of his HIV-positive friends.  I found him to be the most eloquent speaker in the film; he’s also my new hero.  I was honored to meet him at a party at the film festival, and I gave him a big hug to thank him for his outspoken work on behalf of his generation of gay men and my own.

Hard Times:  Lost on Long Island is an hour-long HBO documentary that I had been highly anticipating at the festival. I didn't expect it to be artful filmmaking, but I was correct in predicting that it would be the most timely movie that I saw throughout the week.  The film’s only screening was also woefully under-attended; I didn’t take a head-count, but there were no more than ten viewers in the audience, including the projectionist.  I have to be honest about just how shameful I found that turn-out to be.  Of course, people will always buy a ticket to see a meaningless, escapist comedy rather than a film that focuses on our currently bleak socioeconomic realities.  New England (particularly Cape Cod) is also a bubble of affluence, so it’s revealing that people would avoid learning more about what the majority of the rest of this country (myself included) is struggling through right now.

The film follows a handful of upper middle-class interview subjects as they cope with the fallout from continued unemployment.  While none of the film’s statistics or images were surprising given the harsh economic climate, I was still shocked by several pieces of information.  For example, calls to suicide prevention hotlines have more than tripled since the financial crash of 2008.  And many employers actually admit to not hiring people who are currently unemployed, preferring to give their open positions to applicants who already have a job.  The most chilling images in the film were of foreclosure agents boxing up people’s belongings in foreclosed homes and leaving them sitting abandoned out on the curbside.  I thought to myself, if you’re paid to do that for a living, then you’re no longer a human being.  Your card has been permanently revoked.

In terms of lighter fare, my favorite narrative feature at the festival was the runaway French hit The Intouchables, which is now playing in theaters and is also the highest-grossing box office smash in any language other than English.  That makes perfect sense, since I can’t imagine anyone not thoroughly enjoying this film.  From its clever and sleekly stylized flash-forward opening sequence, which tricks the audience into thinking that the movie will be a fast-paced thriller or action flick, it’s clear that The Intouchables won’t be your standard Odd Couple-style buddy comedy.

The movie’s premise is simple.  Philippe (François Cluzet, pitch-perfect), a wealthy tetraplegic who’s confined to a motorized wheelchair, unexpectedly hires Driss (the extraordinary Omar Sy), a wise-cracking Senegalese immigrant, to be his caretaker.  Driss had only come to interview for the job in order to have his unemployment paperwork authorized, but Philippe knows that he’ll have a much better time hanging out with the no-bullshit Driss, especially in comparison to the other uptight stiffs and slouches who interview for the position. 

The pair goes hang-gliding, street racing, and even dances to the fantastic Earth, Wind and Fire-laced soundtrack together.  The film’s genuine hilarity is matched by its genuine emotion, the kind that’s better to experience first-hand than simply have described for you in a review.  It’s definitely the can’t-miss comedy of the summer, if not the year, in spite of the fact that it’s a fairly formula-based affair overall.  (Omar Sy even beat out The Artist’s Jean Dujardin for Best Actor at the César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars.)

Coincidentally, my second- favorite narrative feature of the festival was another film from France, but an animated one.  Le Tableau (The Painting), directed by Jean-François Laguionie, is a delightful, color-splashed confection of a movie, but a confection with some contemplative (if unpretentious) depth as well.  Characters inside a painting in an artist’s studio come alive, tumble out of the painting, and venture into the new worlds of other paintings elsewhere in the studio.  While the film works perfectly well for children and young people, it’s equally successful for adults, and its more covert themes are perhaps even better suited to mature mindsets.

Some subtextual implications arise in the naming of the two groups of painted characters in the film:  the Allduns and the Sketchies.  As their names suggest, the Allduns are figures that the artist has already completed, whereas the Sketchies are half-done cartoons of figures that are yet to be painted.  The Allduns are forever causing trouble and lording their superiority over the Sketchies.  (Insert your preferred thematic instance of social hegemony here:  race, class, etc.).

Yet the film’s overarching allegory is all about creation.  The characters who escape their painting are longing to meet the person who painted them, and who left some of them half-done because, as it turns out, the woman he loved had betrayed and left him.  In his frustration, he’d slashed and destroyed some of the canvases.  A wonderfully complex dialogue with the artist’s self-portrait takes place; he even comments on the nude painting of a reclining woman across the room, “Look at her ... she’s still in love with him.”

This allegorical investigation of time and creation manifests, ultimately, as an allegory of our search for the Creator.  Religion is never once invoked throughout the entire film — this is, after all, a children’s text on its surface — but by the final scene, it’s clear that we’ve been heading quietly in that direction all along.  One character makes her way out into the sprawling field behind the artist’s studio, at which point the movie blends live action with animation.  She finds the old, white-bearded painter working on a study of the landscape. Satisfied at having finally encountered her creator, she ventures, “Now I just want to meet the person who painted you.”

I was sorry to miss Kirby Dick’s latest documentary The Invisible War, a treatise on the very tragic issue of rape in the United States military, and winner of the audience award for best documentary at the festival. I simply couldn’t fit the film into my tight schedule, unfortunately, but I’m glad to know that I’ll have a chance to see it at the cinema when it’s released here in Boston next month. I look forward to viewing the film, despite (and also because of) its rigorous subject matter.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Time to Leave (dir. François Ozon, 2005)

I’m very excited to attend the annual Provincetown Film Festival later this week, my eighth year at the festival and my third year reviewing it for my blog.  (Look for my report on the highlights of this year’s festival here sometime next week.)  Back in 2006, my favorite film at the festival was François Ozon’s masterful and heartbreaking Time to Leave, which has one of the saddest, most beautiful endings of any film I’ve ever seen.

Based on his other films that I’ve watched (Hideaway/Le Refuge and several short films), Ozon is clearly among the most gifted filmmakers of his generation, and certainly also one of its best gay screenwriters/directors.  The gay themes are quite central in Time to Leave, though always seamlessly incorporated and never stilted or overstated.  Romain, portrayed by the handsome Melvil Poupaud in a rigorous and finely modulated performance, is an in-demand fashion photographer who lives in Paris with his younger blond boyfriend, Sasha (Christian Sengewald).  Early in the movie, Romain suddenly blacks out and collapses during a photo shoot.  A doctor diagnoses him with a malignant tumor and gives him only three months to live.  Forced to make an excruciating decision, Romain chooses not to be treated for the illness.

Instead, he begins to sever ties almost immediately with those closest to him.  He disrupts a family dinner by harshly criticizing his sister, Sophie (Louise-Anne Hippeau), with whom he’s often been at odds, and he breaks off his relationship with Sasha, making him move out of their apartment.  All of this transpires as he refrains from telling any of them about his terminal diagnosis, a way of sparing them the pain of knowing, ultimately.

The only family member whom Romain informs about his illness is his supportive and soft-spoken grandmother, Laura (played by Poupaud’s actual grandmother, the French screen legend Jeanne Moreau).  The two share a moving scene at her country home, exchanging carefully crafted, heartfelt dialogue that emphasizes their mutual solitude and feelings toward their imminent mortality. Laura encourages Romain, just as his physician did, to try to overcome the cancer. And while she respects her grandson's decision not to undergo chemotherapy treatments, she’s also devastated by the loss that she will soon have to face.

I’ve often wondered if I would do the same thing as Romain if I ever found myself in his position.  The world has been disenchanting enough to me — and the idea of “fighting” a terminal disease off-putting enough — that I can readily relate to Romain’s situation, and perhaps even empathize with it.  As the late critic Susan Sontag wisely argued in her 1988 book AIDS and Its Metaphors, “The body is not a battlefield,” and we are not “authorized to fight back” against diseases in the militaristic sense, whenever our bodies are assumed to be under attack.  Cancers and viruses are just natural biological occurrences, and the idea of “battling” them means that their bearers have lost the battle in the event that they die, to some extent unfairly placing the blame on them.  Paraphrasing Lucretius in her conclusion, Sontag urges us to hand the militaristic metaphor for fighting illnesses “back to the war-makers.”

It’s not coincidental to mention AIDS in relation to Time to Leave; AIDS is actually mentioned in the diagnostic stage of Romain’s health crisis, and again later during an important subplot.  Any gay man beyond the age of thirty who watches this film about a young gay man helplessly (but bravely) enduring a debilitating, life-threatening illness won’t be able to avoid the comparison.  In fact, by the movie’s end, several older gay men sitting in front of me at the festival screening were crying very real tears, no doubt partly due to those associations.

Ozon’s films always place the body in a central position of interest.  His camera is obviously attracted to Poupaud’s lanky frame and darkly delicate facial features here.  The one-take scene in which Romain buzzes off his curly head of hair is a kind of face-off with the camera (and his character) regarding the excesses of beauty.  And a scene featuring Romain in bed with Sasha doesn’t shy away from showing Poupaud fully aroused, just as his character would be in real life.  The interplay of bodies on the screen in Ozon’s films is both lush and overt, intimate and threatened.  Somehow he manages to capture the boldness and vulnerability of the body at once, its naked directness and its shy hesitation; the same words could be used to describe the characters’ emotional interplay as well.  What’s whispered between characters (and unheard by the audience) in Ozon’s films is as crucial as the spoken dialogue that we hear.

This is especially true during the film’s key subplot.  A young married couple (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Walter Pagano), who work at a roadside café that Romain frequents, casually approach him to ask if he will help them father a child, due to the husband’s infertility.  I doubt that the scene in which the threesome consummates this act could be more expertly handled than it is by Mr. Ozon and these actors.  Many movies have attempted it, surely, and most others have fallen short on some level, emotionally, sexually, or otherwise.

As Romain grows frailer and his energy wanes while cancer runs its course, he’s also genuinely pleased that he’ll have an heir, and that he’s given two other people such a generous gift as his final gesture. Knowing that his end is near, he boards a train to a remote coastal town, where he goes swimming alone on a crowded beach, echoing the footsteps of his boyhood self from the film’s opening images.  He then lies down on his towel one last time as the beach gradually empties and the sun slowly ticks down to the line of the horizon.

Melvil Poupaud shed a good deal of weight to match his character’s physical state, and as the actor approaches this final scene, he seems at times almost unable to bear the gravity of losing a gorgeous and promising young man at such an early age. And despite François Ozon’s peerless cinematic composure in the last few frames, it’s clear that he felt exactly the same way.