VIFF 2017 Capsule Reviews #1

Ben Russell’s previous film, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, was a minor miracle; he took a series of seemingly unconnected stories – a heavy metal concert, a life of seclusion in the Arctic, pagan rituals – and made a wonderful film out of them by subtly combining them into a statement about purpose in life, finding your space and your people, and being at one with the world. With his new film Good Luck, he attempts something similar, only it does not work nearly as well.

Russell spends time filming in two distinctly different mines – a traditional-style underground mine in Serbia, and an above-ground excavation in Suriname. There is once again no narrative structure or plot, just disparate moments in the life of a miner. Occasionally, Russell asks a question to get the Serbians talking a bit, but it is mostly just scenes of work.

Unfortunately, even after two and a half hours, there is little to pull out of the footage, at least for me. Surface-level commentary is possible, such as that the Serbians seem reluctant to badmouth their government, and that the Surinamese are relatively happier and more relaxed, but I could not find any connection between their act of mining and any larger statement on life, not on the level of Russell’s previous work.

Valérie Massadian landed on the film scene with a bit of a splash back in 2011 when her debut feature Nana won Best First Feature at the Locarno Film Festival. Back now with her second feature-length effort Milla, Massadian captures the life of a young, pregnant woman living on the fringe of society. At the start, Milla (Severine Jonckeere, who the director apparently discovered pregnant, living in a shelter) lives with her boyfriend and focuses on having fun while they squat in an empty house and work to find food and necessities. Later, he is out of the picture and she gives birth, leading to a final third which is almost entirely Milla interacting with her child.

Milla is an example of how an art form can be heightened by simply paying attention to the bond between mother and child. For let us start by saying that, as Milla, Severine Jonckeere is not actually a very gifted actress. This is not to say that she lacks talent but, more on point, that she simply ISN’T really an actress. So her performance in the first half, as she interacts with Luc Chessel playing the boyfriend, is almost deliberately weak. She gets through scenes by constantly snickering and giggling at Luc’s actions and barely having to do much at all. Ordinarily this would seem to be a complaint or criticism, but Massadian I think did this deliberately, for when the final third of the film arrives, and now-mother Severine must “act” with her own real child, the entire film changes. Severine is aglow, she talks constantly, she interacts with her son Ethan, and the transformation is quite amazing to watch. By using an amateur actress who segues into motherhood during filming, Valérie Massadian has created a fascinating picture of the power of the maternal bond.

The terrors of the Pinochet regime in Chile continue to be interpreted by that country’s filmmakers in a number of strong recent films, with the Vancouver Festival featuring specifically a new film by Marcela Said called Los Perros (The Dogs, in English). The film revolves around a woman named Mariana who struggles to fully comprehend that the privileged life she leads was made possible by the actions of her father, a member of Pinochet’s military. Mariana cannot understand people’s quiet comments about her family, or their comfort and how it was achieved, but seemingly dives headfirst into multiplying her problems by starting an affair with a second former member of the Pinochet regime, a riding instructor who is under active investigation for human rights abuses.

Mariana is played by Antonia Zegers, who also appears in this year’s A Fantastic Woman in a small role. Zegers has a difficult task as Mariana – she has to imply that her character truly does not understand the immediate world around her, or that she is so buffered against the horror of her father’s crimes that she has convinced herself – while also keeping her character from becoming a monstrous sort of cartoon. To her credit, Zegers manages this flawlessly… Mariana is clearly in complete denial or ignorance, but in Zegers’ hands she remains a sympathetic figure as behind the constant look of bemusement there is a clear beating heart struggling with the world. Los Perros asks us not to think of those who happened to benefit from the Pinochet regime in black-and-white terms – maybe not the easiest request for some, but a good case is made.