Tag Archives: Arthouse

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Theodore Schaefer

FEATURING: Annie Parisse, Gus Birney, Constance Shulman

PLOT: A suburban mother and her son’s pregnant girlfriend take a surreal road trip to try to fix a financial mistake.

Still from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

COMMENTS: Diana is the matriarch of an average suburban family who’s made an embarassing mistake. Her husband Daryl hates his job and has dreams of opening a restaurant. Daughter Danielle is assisting in the school play. Son Andrew has a pregnant (though not with a butterfly) girlfriend, Marlene. Marlene’s mother is delusional, believing herself a famous but forgotten actress about to be rediscovered.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly starts out as a domestic drama, but one with a very dry sense of absurdity. Marlene reads off eye-catching headlines from a tabloid magazine: “Child Sings in the Womb,” “Dead Couple Wed at Their Funeral,” that sort of thing.  Diana’s co-workers have confusingly similar names and appearances. Characters drift into improbably poetic monologues. And Marlene’s mom is totally bonkers, a good excuse for the movie to cut loose from some of its subtlety. But although the dialogue is sometimes ridiculous, the dynamics between the characters are believable: Diana and Daryl share a low-grade, polite hostility. Dad wants to impose his dreams on the whole family. The children either try to defuse family tensions or are absorbed in their own worlds. Marlene, the reluctant interloper, wants to ingratiate herself into her boyfriend’s family.

In the beginning, at least, we learn more about Diana from her relations with others than from herself, which may be the key to her character. The first act sets up the characters. When Diana and Marlene embark on a journey, Diana slowly comes more into focus. When the pair arrive at the home of a couple of old ladies who are both spooky and wise, the movie launches into full surrealist mode, as Diana’s dreams become her reality.

Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a short movie, only 75 minutes long. But like a particularly dense poem, its brevity belies an entire world of thematic and intertextual references. The title is taken from a 1917 poem by Mina Loy (the relevant stanza of which is read over the credits) and there are references to Homer. The characters monologues are draped in metaphor. A number of motifs recur: naming people, twins, trains and journeys, damaged artworks. The dreamlike ending is not explicitly explained, but these themes give you a lot to think about. Enigma is the dominant tone. It’s an intelligent, and even poetic debut film from Theodore Schaefer, but it’s not always an engaging one. But its short runtime may make it worth a gamble if you find the idea of a Sundance-style dramedy with a surreal twist at the end appealing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dream-like experience with relatable themes, but the surrealist drama plays more like a philosophy lecture than a film. Feeling like a co-production between Kelly Reichardt and David Lynch, Schaefer’s directorial debut shows promise as a filmmaker, but the film never concretely comes together.”–Jon Medelsohn, CBR.com (festival screening)

Short promotional clip from Giving Birth to a Butterfly (2021)

CAPSULE: ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2019)

Om det oändliga

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Serner, Bengt Bergius

PLOT: Wan, deadpan vignettes, including stories of a priest who has lost his faith and a couple who are inexplicably flying over a burnt-out city.

Still from About Endlessness (2019)

COMMENTS: If you’ve seen a Roy Andersson film before, you know exactly what to expect from About Endlessness. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s as easy to describe the style as it is difficult to capture the poetic impact. Andersson movies are a series of short vignettes (some under a minute), mostly grim and bleak in tone, staged on immaculately detailed sets composed of earth tones and enacted by pale actors with mostly deadpan deliveries. Endlessness is not the work I would advise Andersson neophytes to start with (begin at Songs from the Second Floor and work your way forward). This project feels less like a climax to the now-78-year-old Andersson’s brilliant career, and more like an unexpected encore, a gift to hardcore fans who are not quite ready to go home just yet.

Taken together, the patchy events of an Andersson movie suggest a tapestry of human life. Here, most of the segments are introduced by a detached female voice, whose descriptions set the stage for each bit: “I saw a young man who had not yet found love,” “I saw a couple, two lovers, floating over a city,” “I saw a woman who loved champagne.” Endlessness differs from previous entries in Andersson’s canon in that there is less obvious surrealism and absurdity, and also less obvious humor. On the other hand, while he remains a Swede who makes look jovial by comparison, there is more hope here than in the past. A scene at the railway station does not end in the disaster we predict; a fight seems to be resolved, if not happily, at least with closure; and a moment where three young women break into spontaneous dancing is the most life-affirming moment the aueteur has ever chronicled. Even so, the ratio of joy to quiet despair here is unfavorable to humanity; but at least, on occasion, he admits rays of sunlight to break from the overcast skies.

The miniatures are spare, cut to the bone, with no extraneous detail to detract from each parable. Dialogue is rare, action rarer, so we have plenty of opportunity to indulge ourselves with Andersson’s specialty—set design. While the director staged a few outdoor scenes in Endlessness, it’s next to impossible to distinguish those shot in the wild from ones filmed entirely inside his warehouse using trompe l’oeil backdrops. Often the only way to know is by checking whether the clouds move, or whether birds in the sky recede or stay nailed in place.

Recurrent check-ins with a depressed priest who has lost his faith best—and possibly too obviously—express the major theme that runs through Andersson’s work: the disappearance of God from Western culture, and the persistent longing for Him. Meanwhile, the title comes from another vignette, where a young physics student attempts to wring  a spiritual lesson out of the Laws of Thermodynamics, only to be undercut when his girlfriend fails to appreciate the metaphor. At any rate, About Endlessness is an ironic title for a film that runs a brief 75 minutes, and is haunted by premonitions of death. The ending, which will likely serve as the final shot of Andersson’s cinematic career, is a whimper. It suggests that he has run out of gas. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that his final statement seems to be that his movie ends as everything will end: broken-down and alone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘About Endlessness’ is one of the least fanciful of Roy Andersson’s films. There’s less of the deadpan surrealism that tinged his prior, singular movies… The ‘endlessness’ of the film encompasses a lot of absurdity and disappointment, but its notes of grace sound the loudest.”–Glen Kenny, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY (1977)

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DIRECTED BY: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

FEATURING: André Heller, Peter Kern, Heinz Schubert, Hellmut Lange, narrated by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

PLOT: Hitler’s youth, rise, fall, and aftermath are all explored via inter-related vignettes, monologues, stage props, and puppets.

Still from Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Syberberg’s epic is a documentary with an impossible task: capturing the full scope and legacy of the 20th-century’s most dangerous maniac. Eschewing the standard “narrated historical footage interspersed with talking heads,” the film instead aims to recreate the febrile mindset inspired by Adolf Hitler by dabbling in surrealism, cosmic imagery, mundane detail, historical cinematic allusions, and ironic counterpoint. There are also puppet facsimiles of all the Reich’s leading men.

COMMENTS: This film from Germany is, on the surface, very simple. It has no elaborate special effects. Its main set is a theater strewn with props. It uses widely available historic footage and broadcasts. It states from the start that its mission is impossible. The events leading up to Hitler’s rise, and the fallout from his catastrophic machinations, cannot be recreated in any conventional way. So Syberberg takes advantage of both his limited budget (some half-a-million dollars) and his task’s inherent difficulties to craft a reverie that fuses cosmic grandeur with the tedium of minutiae. In doing so, he has created not so much a documentary of events as a dreamscape that lands the viewer face to face with the 20th century’s greatest evil.

A ring master invites the viewer to the forthcoming spectacle, encouraging us to take part at home. Barking through a megaphone, he promises outlandish sights and sounds. Entertainment, through sketch, monologue, and marionettes, awaits. Vintage radio broadcasts blast breathtaking news of conquest and hate, while a young girl clad in a celluloid headdress wanders amidst symbolic props and across idyllic rear-projected landscapes. Academics chime in, typically directly at the camera, other times in conversation with a carved wooden Führer. Various actors play various iterations of Himmler. Hitler’s valet leads us on of his bunker and explains the Führer’s exasperating disinclination to wear the correct shoes. A likeness of Doctor Caligari presents his own side-show of esoteric relics, from the historical spear that stabbed Jesus Christ to the bottle of Hitler’s semen—not the real thing, mind you, as that has been preserved in a capsule frozen in an alpine glacier and protected by elite guards. For over seven hours, Syberberg builds a mindscape from snippets of Wagner, snatches of Goethe, and reams of autobiographical testimony from those closest to the Führer.

There is a climactic scene of sorts, involving a conversation between a scholar and the little Hitler perched upon his knee. The academic argues that, despite all Hitler’s ambitions, and with all the idiotic mistakes he made (for example, rallying against the Jews instead of co-opting them), he failed. During Hitler’s lengthy rejoinder, in which he expounds upon the reality he established even upon his death, the academic removes coat after coat from the doll, taking its garb backward further and further along Hitler’s historical sartorial path. This contrast of contemporary and future with historical delving is Syberberg’s primary tool. Despite virtually all the facts available to us—the thousands of hours of film, the unending radio transmissions, the millions of words written by observers from all sides—there is a disconnect, as if the catalyst is missing. There was a time before Hitler, there was a time after Hitler.

By the end, I was well and truly transported. Watching Hitler: a Film from Germany is, despite the bare-bones production, a transcendental experience. Each of the four acts is the length of any one standard feature film, but Syberberg had his hooks in me—so much so that I watched it all in one sitting. The art-house speeches, effective in their matter-of-fact tones and melancholy delivery; the fusion of man and doll when the Reich’s ministers expound on their greatness; the conventional drama of the scenes that still subvert with their dissonant aural cues or ironic back-projection; this all adds up to a heady experience that should be mandatory viewing for any student of history, contemporary politics, psychology, or cinema. Hitler: a Film from Germany deftly and thoroughly examines how one man’s dream of destroying the world order succeeded despite his own downfall.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To present Hitler in multiple guises and from many perspectives, Syberberg draws on disparate stylistic sources: Wagner, Méliès, Brechtian distancing techniques, homosexual baroque, puppet theater. This eclecticism is the mark of an extremely self-conscious, erudite, avid artist, whose choice of stylistic materials (blending high art and kitsch) is not as arbitrary as it might seem. Syberberg’s film is, precisely, Surrealist in its eclecticism.” -Susan Sontag, The New York Review (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FELLINI’S CASANOVA (1976)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: The dashing Venetian nobleman Casanova wanders around 18th century Europe seducing every woman who catches his eye.

Still from Fellini's Casanova (1976)

COMMENTS: Federico Fellini agreed to direct Casanova before he had read the Venetian libertine’s memoirs, which had only been published in 1960 in their complete uncensored form. After he did, he discovered that he hated the protagonist.

Perhaps that distaste partially explain why Donald Sutherland seems so wrong for the role of the notorious Lothario. The film’s Hollywood backers initially wanted Robert Redford for the part; Fellini vetoed them. Fellini wanted ; the suits vetoed him. Sutherland was a compromise. But, in keeping with his loathing of the character, Fellini chose to outfit Sutherland with a grotesque fake chin and nose, powder his face, and shave his head and eyebrows and replace them with a ridiculously coiffed wig and stenciled brows so that he looked like a rejected contestant from Ru Paul’s 18th Century Dandy Drag Race. It’s hard to imagine even the most desperate Renaissance floozy being hard up enough to willingly lift her petticoats for this Casanova. Perhaps that’s why, in an odd decision that bothers me more than it probably should, everyone in the movie keeps their frilly long underwear on during the manic but completely unerotic sex scenes. Casanova also has a golden wind-up mechanical owl, who pistons up and down and accompanies his assignations with a series of blips and bloops scored by Nino Rota. The lovemaking scenes are supposed to be comic—I think—but they comes across as slightly creepy, like sex scenes choreographed by an alien who’d fast-forwarded through a couple of Eurotrash sex films the night before, but didn’t have human sexual mechanics completely down.

To be fair, Sutherland does look the part of the spent, past-his-prime Casanova eeking out a humiliating living as a librarian for Count Waldstein; and the end of the film is where Fellini, too, finally shows some compassion for the drained rake. But overall, Casanova is overlong, unsympathetic, miscast, and a failure of tone. That’s not to say it’s entirely without interest, however; this is Fellini, so there’s always the possibility that some carnival with a 7-foot woman attended by two dwarfs in powdered wigs is waiting around the next bend. The costuming and set design are superlative. Fellini recreates the capitals and castles of old Europe on Cinecittà‘s indoor sets, including the impressive opener in Venice, where a giant bust of Venus rises from a canal during Carnevale as fireworks splatter the sky. Even the stormy Adriatic Sea is recreated as a sea of rustling black plastic tarps. And you can look forward to such oddities as a dinner party of necromancers, and Casanova finally discovering the great love of his life: a lifelike automaton complete with realistic artificial genitalia.

Although there’s a reason Casanova has been neglected all these years (Fellini once called it his worst movie), it easily merits a guilty peek for curiosity-seekers. In some ways, the scarcely-controlled extravagance and emphasis on mise-en-scène above all else reminds me more of early than it does late Fellini.

Fellini filmed an episode with that was cut from the final edit of the film. (Her name still appears prominently in the credits, and I kept waiting for her to show up to see what Fellini was going to do with her, er, talents).

Despite winning an Oscar (for costuming), Fellini’s Casanova was always a neglected entry in the Maestro’s canon. It didn’t even earn a DVD release in the US. In 2019, Cinecittà restored Casanova in the course of their massive remastering of Fellini’s catalog. Criterion apparently passed on it for their Fellini box set, but in December 2020, Kino rescued the film from home video limbo, sending it straight to Blu-ray.  A thoroughly-researched audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton is the only special feature of this edition.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…much less about the self-proclaimed 18th-century philanderer, his life and his times, than it is the surreal, guilt-ridden confessions of a nice, middle-class Italian husband of the 20th century… I don’t know how else to interpret this strange, cold, obsessed film, which I find fascinating, because I find the man who made it fascinating, a talented mixture of contradictory impulses, and as depressing as an eternal hangover.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who argues “Any question of this film’s weirdness can be directed to the scene where Sutherland performs a bizarre sex-change ritual with two women that involves a candlewax head dress…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SUBURBAN BIRDS (2018)

Jiao qu de niao

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DIRECTED BY: Sheng Qiu

FEATURING: Mason Lee, Zihan Gong

PLOT: A team of engineers investigate the sudden appearance of sinkholes which are forcing them to condemn buildings; the story changes to follow a group of suburban elementary schoolers, with parallels developing between the two tales.

Still from Suburban Birds (2018)

COMMENTS: If Suburban Birds is any indication, the modern Chinese art-house movement will be founded in the spirit of . Cinematography will be privileged over narrative, hazy mysticism will pervade, and timelines will go out of focus as one or more histories coexist at once.

Suburban Birds begins slowly, develops slowly, and ends with two men falling asleep. We start off following Han, part of a four man surveying team investigating unstable buildings in a Chinese city. After a while, Han enters an evacuated school and finds a diary. He reads it, and we then begin following the story of a boy—also named Han—and his school chums. They hunt for birds eggs, engage in pre-adolescent flirtation, play war games with toy guns, and eventually trek off on a long journey to find one of their number who didn’t show up to school that day. This section of the film takes up an inconclusive hour in the middle of the film, and is almost entirely realistic. The temptation is to assume that young Han and old Han are the same character at different times of their lives, but the story steadfastly refuses to commit to that interpretation, and in fact several points undermine it. When we return to old Han—seen awakening from a nap—the movie seems less connected to reality than before, although the dissonances are always subtle. Motifs such as haircuts, a riddle, and a stray dog recur in both stories, and it’s possible to draw parallels between Han’s companions in each hemisphere. It ends with a coda that brings in two new characters, out on a birdwatching trip in the same forest where young Han once roamed.

What it all signifies is anyone’s guess; it’s impossible to tease out a moral from the odd story, which never develops a consistent tone or obvious theme. It does features good, if restrained, acting; the children, especially, are a believable ensemble, without a weak link. The cinematography is superior, with intelligent zooms and pans highlighting important characters and spatial relationships. Memorable visuals include a shot of tufts of grass that change color from lavender to red to green, and a dreamlike interlude where the engineers examine “clues” from inside separate plexiglass enclosures, each lit in a different neon lighting scheme. Suburban Birds may be enjoyed by fans of slow, obliquely mystical cinema in the mold of and the aforementioned Bi Gan, but I found it took far too long in developing its enigmas, which didn’t seem worth the journey.

Suburban Birds got a very limited U.S. release in 2019; a DVD/Blu-ray showed up in 2020, and it can be found for rental on some of the smaller, art-house oriented streaming services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Qiu shows remarkable facility as he patiently adds layer upon layer to a mystery that wants to stay one. This is not a puzzle film, but its ends are elusive.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KINETTA (2005)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Giorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Evangelia Randou, Aris Servetalis, Costas Xikominos

PLOT: “At a Greek hotel in the off-season, a chamber maid, a man obsessed with BMWs, and a photo-store clerk attempt to film and photograph various badly reenacted struggles between a man and a woman.

COMMENTS: If I am reviewing a film I enjoy or respect (or better yet, both), I am often apprehensive when I sit down to write about it. This is because, despite having written hundreds of reviews by now, I am always fearful I won’t find my “window” into the movie: that first sentence, or first idea, that opens up the rest of my thoughts as I write. If I am reviewing a film that I did not care for, this is not a problem, as there’s usually at least one withering put-down that acts as my window. With Kinetta, I was spoiled for choices. A high point in the movie came early on when I was relieved to find that I wouldn’t, as I was fearing, have to make use of “Closed Caption” subtitles: it turned out the film already had standard subtitles pre-rigged in the stream. This resolved, I watched and took notes; to my right, my cat, Goose, did the sensible thing and slept soundly through the entire film.

Whoever provided the summary on IMDb (which I lifted straight from the site, for the second time only), is a very well-spoken person. That is exactly what Kinetta is “about”, and no amount of “walk time” padding or shaky-cam “fight” footage can stop my train of thought from slapping quotations around everything in a vain attempt to convey how mind-numbingly pointless this cinematic exercise is. Of the three leads, the least charismatic (the “BMW”-fanboy, who may be a cop [?]) gets by far and away the most dialogue. Cameraman, with beard, has perhaps half a dozen short lines, but comes across as the only reasonable person of the bunch. The scene in which he saves the hotel maid character from a drug overdose makes for the only worthwhile stretch of movie—right in the final minutes. But well before that point, a question came unbidden to my mind, “Why don’t the MST3K or RiffTrax people make better use of their skills by tearing art-house garbage to pieces?”

I dove into this review because it was put out there by Management toward the top of the to-do pile. Though I’ve seen one of the director’s more recent movies (with other 366ers, no less), I was totally unfamiliar with his name. So I say to you, Mr. Lanthimos, as I am sure you are reading a review of your (kind of) feature debut from fifteen years ago: good job on overcoming the naysayers. While the likes of The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster prove you know how to make really good movies, Kinetta stands as proof-in-celluloid that you can make a really horrible one if you put your mind to it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewing ‘Kinetta’ with the benefit of hindsight, you can see inklings of visual and staging ideas that Lanthimos would explore more fully later on… But time hasn’t made it more than a cryptic curiosity.”–Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times (2019 revival)

CAPSULE: TOMMASO (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Cristina Chiriac

PLOT: An aging American director living in Rome goes to AA meetings and struggles to relate to his much younger Moldavian wife.

Still from Tommaso (2019)

COMMENTS: It may be inevitable that as Abel Ferrara has aged and sobered up, he’s started to make self-consciously serious movies aimed at art houses, as opposed to the wild and exploitative hits like Ms. 45 (1981) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) that originally brought him cult fame. While his movies once graced grindhouses, prior to Tommaso Ferrara was last seen at the Venice Film Festival pushing a prestige biopic about fellow bad-boy director .

Now, he’s back with a navel-gazing domestic drama that’s heavy on scenes of walking though Roman streets, Italian lessons, squabbling spouses, and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials. There is no doubt that Tommaso is Ferrara: an ex-alcoholic movie director living in Rome with a much younger foreign wife and daughter (who are played by Ferrara’s real-life wife and daughter). We also see him working on a movie screenplay (which, from the Eskimos and bears, one guesses is destined to become the soon-to-be-released Siberia). Ferrara wisely chooses the great Willem Dafoe as his stand-in: even when he’s cheating, or thinking of cheating, or having grandiose messianic fantasies, Dafoe is weighty and likable. He finds the legitimate human confusion and suffering that makes us empathize with every indulgence. (Although he’s awesome as always here, I still wish Dafoe would take fewer roles playing elderly filmmakers who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality and more roles playing foul-mouthed and flatulent 19th century lighthouse keepers).

The numerous fantasy segments scattered throughout this self-searching autobiographical character study give it the esque credibility required in the subgenre. Some of them nakedly illustrate Tommaso’s insecurities. He imagines his child in danger, his wife unfaithful. Others are more inscrutable: a Kafkaesque detention dream, or Tommaso literally pulling out his own heart while sitting around a squatters’ campfire. The finale is imaginary and catalysimic. But no matter their subject, the hallucinations do not seriously impede on the movie’s basic plotlessnesses, its focus on marital discord and sarcastic self-reflection.

Tommaso’s anxiety about whether his wife will seek comfort in the arms of someone closer to her own age, and his struggle with his own controlling nature—even with yoga and breathing exercises, he’s awfully high-strung and quick to jealous anger—form the essence of his internal conflict. Although his wife Nikki can occasionally seem a little bit immature (“I want to do what I want, when I want…”), Tommaso consistently comes off much worse. At one point, he spends his entire turn at an AA meeting complaining about his wife; the next speaker empathizes with him, but also offers some wisdom: “this program teaches me to stick to my side of the street… whenever I’m pointing a finger, I’ve got to look at myself.” The message is lost on Tommaso, however, who continues his bossy behavior, and flirts with other women while imagining Nikki is cheating on him.

This unflattering portrayal, of course, is Ferrara’s way of working out his own issues and anxieties on film—a public confessional that is as brave as it is uncomfortable for the viewer. After watching Tomasso, I feel like I know Ferrara intimately—more intimately than I should know a stranger.  On the other hand, I keep thinking about an AA speech where Tommaso describes those long-ago times when he directed indie movies by day and smoked crack and got pounded in the face by jealous boyfriends by night—and kept thinking how I wanted to see that memoir, instead of the one I was currently watching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Much of the film feels as though it is going through the movements of a surrealist film, though lacking the dedication. It wants to be surrealist, giving a message in the symbolism of the film, though teasing audiences with a cohesive narrative that never truly arrives.”–Stephanie Archer, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)