IFFR 2016: Fear, Grief, and Other Misery

The 45th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam is underway. Due to time restrictions, I could only attend three days, but I made the most of it. This is a short write-up on some of the films seen over that brief period of time. This will be followed later this week with more extensive looks at the three best films I saw over the weekend: Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia, Philippe Grandrieux’ Malgré la Nuit, and David Verbeek’s Full Contact.

The Daughter (Simon Stone)

A dark cloud looms ominously over the wooded hills of the Australian logging heartland. A gunshot rings, a lone hunter appears. He has shot a duck, but has only wounded it. The duck is the defining metaphor throughout The Daughter, the debut film of Australian theater director Simon Stone, in an otherwise fairly straightforward tale.

The hunter is Henry (Geoffrey Rush), local sawmill owner. The logging business isn’t exactly booming, and Henry has to close down his mill, a devastating blow for the small town that is dependent on the industry. Families get torn apart, relationships break up, friends lose touch. One friendship rekindles, however, as Christian (Paul Schneider), Henry’s son, returns to the small community for his father’s upcoming wedding to his half-his-age housekeeper (Anna Torv). He runs into his old pal Oliver (Ewen Leslie), a worker at Henry’s mill. Oliver lives with his wife (Miranda Otto), his daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young), and his father (Sam Neill), who has built a sanctuary for wounded animals in the woods behind their house (cue: the return of the duck). Christian and Oliver pick up their friendship where it left off, when Christian left town after the suicide of his mother. This incident still haunts him, and there is a streak of darkness in him that slowly comes to surface, as it turns out the lives of these two families are more entangled than meets the eye, and a dark secret lies between them.

Stone wrote the screenplay for The Daughter based on his adaptation for the stage of Henrik Ibsen’s famous play The Wild Duck. The director’s history as a theater director shows in the performances of his actors, but his debut also shows he has a keen eye for composition and knows how to work with the bigger canvas he is given. He paces the plot with assurance, revealing the dark secrets behind its key players slowly, until the whole thing explodes in the final act and ends on an ambiguous, dark note, the ambiguity perhaps the only weak point in the script. On the whole, however, The Daughter is an engaging adult drama that eschews cheap emotional manipulations and trusts its strong narrative. As a debut, this is an impressive start for Simon Stone.

Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée)

How do you deal with grief over the death of a loved one, when you feel you never really knew that person? This is the situation Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) grapples with in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition, a film that tries to mix the saccharine of end-of-year Oscar bait with the quirkier traits of independent film, and surprisingly succeeds quite reasonably.

Davis is a successful investment banker in the firm of his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper). When he and his wife Julia (Heather Lind) are involved in a car accident that kills her, Davis has to cope with her death. But did I really love her, he wonders. An insignificant incident with a candy vending machine leads him to write a cathartic letter to the vending-machine company’s customer service. And then another one. And another one. These letters are read by the one-woman customer service team (Naomi Watts), who tries to make a connection to Davis. As their lives start to become entangled, and Davis starts to unravel, it is growing ever clearer that Davis might have had more feelings for Julia than he cares to admit.

Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has built a reputation in recent years as one of the new golden boys of Hollywood, guiding his last two films (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) to multiple Oscar nominations on the back of feel-good stories about people exorcising their personal demons. His latest, Demolition, is no different, although there is a welcome infusion of humor and some raw edges in the script that were lacking from his previous efforts. Which isn’t to say that Vallée doesn’t try his hardest to get you to emote at all the right moments. This is still a manipulative Hollywood tearjerker after all, which also means everything will be neatly wrapped up at the end, not unexpectedly if you have been down this road before. But it is this particular road, with its offbeat humor and sometimes surprisingly nuanced handling of the paths that veer off it (the plot strand of impressive newcomer Judah Lewis), that elevates this film over the usual schlock. Which makes it all the more surprising that after opening the Toronto Film Festival last September, this quickly fell off the Oscar radar. It doesn’t really deserve anything, but worse films have been nominated, including Vallée’s previous work, and this crowdpleaser seems tailor made for the Academy. Maybe some of Vallée’s shine is coming off?

Fear Itself (Charlie Lyne)

Nobody likes to be scared. Fear is a negative emotion. Then why do we so willingly seek it out when we watch horror movies? Why do we watch movies that are designed to bring out our deepest fears? What do we fear, and what is the meaning of fear? These are the questions Charlie Lyne investigates in his essay on this phenomenon. With a dizzying collage of clips, from Suspiria to Nosferatu, from Don’t Look Now to Tetsuo, from M to It Follows, a foreboding soundtrack, and a voiceover (by Amy E Watson) that is at once lulling and unsettling, he creates an atmospheric look at how fear is instilled and built up in the viewer.

Because of the monotony of the voiceover, it is less about what she is saying (though it pays off to pay attention), and more about how she says it that slowly builds a sense of dread, as if we are in for the frightening climax that is such a trope of the genre. However, the tension is never brought beyond that boiling point, the music keeping the viewer on edge, which makes for somewhat exhausting viewing (which is kind of the point). The film is even reflective: what are your limits of fear? What would you do?

Fear Itself is almost strictly something for cinephiles, although the casual viewer might get pleasure out of recognizing the individual clips. Since they are, however, almost never the most famous scenes from their films (although this reviewer was pleased to see Lost Highway included here), the novelty may wear off quickly. For those who stay for the whole ride it is a unique experience, perhaps not entirely satisfying intellectually, but a different look at a cinematic theme, the exploration of fear, that we like best in the dark, and when paid for.

The Endless River (Oliver Hermanus)

Oliver Hermanus’ third film, The Endless River, debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year, the first South African film to ever do so. A sign of an emerging continent in cinema, even though the film is universal in its themes of grief and reconciliation. It even touches upon that most American of genres, the Western. The opening credits and music feel right out of a John Ford film, in which the wide South African landscape doubles for the vistas of Arizona. And it shares some of the tropes too: the lone stranger in town, the bad guy and his posse, and the dame caught between them.

The outsider in this tale isn’t alone initially. French expat Gilles lives with his wife and two young children on a farm outside the small town Riviersonderend (the film’s title in the local language of Afrikaans). In a roadside diner he frequents, he meets Tiny, a waitress who has just seen her husband Percy return home after a four-year stint in prison. One night, in a particularly striking scene, Gilles’ wife and children are brutally raped and murdered while Gilles is out. Before long fingers start to point at Percy, who isn’t doing a whole lot to shake off his image as a gangster. When he is found killed, Tiny and Gilles turn to each other to work through their grief, two souls who have lost everything they had to live for. But who killed Percy?

Hermanus takes his time to develop the tale. With long takes, deep silences, and stoic, brooding characters, the helmer creates a slow-burn crime drama that at times seems to come to a standstill. A few lyrical scenes (the aforementioned attack on the farm a prime example) can’t hide the fact that a little trimming here and there would have made the film feel less lengthy, especially in the final third, when Tiny and Gilles search their souls and discover each other. What holds the attention for the full two hours are the performances, in particular Crystal-Donna Roberts and Nicolas Duvauchelle as Tiny and Gilles, respectively. Both actors do wonders with very little dialogue, Roberts especially expressive in her eyes and body language. They can’t save the film as a whole though, as it becomes a bit of a slog to sit through. One more round in the editing room wouldn’t have hurt.

El Clan (Pablo Trapero)

In the early ’80s, Argentina exchanged a brutal military dictatorship for democracy. While those in power got their due, many lower-level officials remained unscathed and could continue living in relative peace and comfort. One such family were the Puccios, on whose true story Pablo Trapero bases his Silver Lion-winning El Clan.

The Puccio clan, under the leadership of pater familias Arquímedes (a chilling performance by Guillermo Francella, who is mostly known for comedy), continue to kidnap people after the fall of the junta, this time not for political reasons but for financial gain. After the victims’ families pay the ransom, they simply kill the victims. Life in the Puccio household continues as if the kidnapped people in their bathroom or basement do not exist, creating a bizarre shadow world in which they rule, all the while keeping up appearances for the outside world. But the situation starts to gnaw at the children, in particular eldest son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani). A successful and popular rugby player, Alejandro reluctantly cooperates with his dad on their hits, but his conscience and a will to start a life of his own with his girlfriend Mónica (Stefanía Koessl) thrust him and his tyranical father further apart.

The situation in the Puccio family home, with children doing their homework while in the next room people are in chains, is underscored by Trapero through the use of an upbeat soundtrack full of chirpy songs from the era, creating an almost fantastical atmosphere, which makes it even more chilling when you realize all of this really happened. The whole film circles around Francella’s tremendous performance as the diabolical, steely-eyed Arquímedes. Under the calm surface of this man lies a dormant volcano, and once it erupts during a mid-film confrontation with Alejandro, the image is truly frightening.

Where Trapero falters is in laying the connection between the Puccio clan and those still in power, who protect them until they become too much of a danger for public scandal. Trapero lays the connections, but only lightly, making El Clan more a straightforward crime story than a tale that could imply something bigger. As such, the film is a bit slight, if thoroughly entertaining.

Alone (Park Hong-min)

A few years ago, Korean director Park Hong-min was in competition with his debut feature A Fish, at the time the first independent film ever made in 3-D. For his sophomore effort Alone he sticks to two dimensions, although given the Escheresque way he shoots the maze-like backstreets of the protangonist’s Seoul neighborhood, you could be forgiven for thinking they forgot to hand you those special glasses at the entrance.

There’s something amiss on the rooftops of a nondescript Seoul neighborhood. Three masked men drag a woman to the top of a building and (seemingly) kill her. By chance, a man sees them from a balcony several buildings away. He shoots the scene with his camera. One of the men notices him, and they start moving towards his building. The man tries to hide in his small apartment, but they find him, and then… we discover our protagonist left for dead on a street corner, stark naked. What has happened? Just as it isn’t clear to him, it isn’t clear to us, the viewers. He starts finding his way around the area. Being built on a hill, pathways go up and down, a veritable maze of alleys and back alleys. He encounters a strange child wielding a large knife, and a catatonic woman, during his in-the-buff traipse around the neighborhood, but soon enough finds his way back to his building. He discovers a decapitated person wearing his clothes in his apartment, and is attacked again by one of the masked men. Then he wakes up once more on the same street corner, and the journey starts again…

Alone feels like a remake of Groundhog Day, as done by Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk. A fever dream of a film, and like most fever dreams, it should not be this long. Once the protagonist and his dead (or is she?) girlfriend get into a lengthy discussion about an hour into the film, you’ll find yourself glancing at your watch more than you’d want. What came before it though is an intriguing and original mystery that should be seen just for the committed performance of the lead actor. It’s a very physical performance that nonetheless requires Lee Ju-won to also tap both his dramatic and comedic resources. He is one of the reasons that the film works in the end, even if at ninety minutes it still feels about fifteen too long.