LAFF: Day #3

June 20, 2010

A FAMILY (dir. Pernille Fischer Christensen, 2010)

A Danish attempt at the lyrical stylings/poignancy of French master Olivier Assayas, A Family charts the tragic ebbs and flows of an upper class family in crisis. Two brilliant lead performances by Jesper Christensen and Lene Maria Christensen playing sickly baker Rikard and his art curator daughter Ditte respectively, anchor this slowly paced and often trying examination of generational conflict, jealousy, and regret. The film begins in a lovely bright hue as possibilities abound, including a new job in New York City, a fresh bill of health for the aging patriarch, and a long due marriage proposal. But the glow doesn’t last, and these expectations of happiness become variations of deep inaction and tragedy.

Director Pernille Fischer Christensen uses a fluid hand-held camera to capture individual moments of reflection and sadness, but the script itself delves into the stereotypes of modern melodrama. This tug of war between these subtle, often illuminating aesthetics and the drawn out suffering inherent to the narrative never reconcile, forcing the viewer into one uncomfortable juxtaposition after another. The film admirably traverses difficult subject matter regarding the slow degeneration of the sick and the tough decisions family members must navigate when looking toward the future. But there’s no room to breath in A Family, no need for improvisation when discussing these very complex ideas. The overt construction of the tragedy is too forced to make the kind of resonant impact of a film like Summer Hours. The vice of suffering closes in an all participants in a way that speaks of contrivance more than real life, and the final sequence of resolute hope falls flat as a result.

LEBANON (dir. Samuel Moaz, 2010)

Set completely in the hull of an Israeli tank during the first day of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, this formally rigorous assault on the senses envisions a shifting, chaotic perspective on the horrors of war. The small crew of young soldiers rely  entirely on the limited scope-sized perspective of exterior assaults, contradictory radio communications, and occasional invasions of their own space by commanders to build a picture of the surrounding conflict. The result is a terrifying and incomplete vision of hell on earth, where the textures, fluids, and layers of war cake every inch of the frame.

Devastation is seen through sudden zooms, confrontational close-ups, and heard through a booming musical theme. Certain scenes appear almost completely consumed by the pulse-pounding sound design echoing off the walls of the tank. A piece of paper hanging on a particularly disgusting interior slab reads a quote – “Tanks are made of iron. Men are made of steel.” This slice of philosophical propaganda turns out to be incredibly problematic and fascinating, indicative of the film’s audacious formalism and the limitations of cinema to fully capture such an environment. The tank’s hull seemingly closes in from all angles, leaving both the viewer and the characters trapped physically and morally, dependent on the actions of unseen players in a conflict where the only certainty is personal catastrophe.

CAFE NOIR (dir. Jung Sung-il, 2010)

Sprawling, enigmatic, and deeply personal, South Korean Juny Sung-il’s debut film about the intertwined lives of lost souls in Seoul is a completely singular experience. Film and literary references abound, layering scenes with multiple meanings, configurations, and outcomes that both frustrates and fascinates. At 197 minutes, Cafe Noir tests your patience with elongated conversations between characters, endless tracking shots through the city, and a disjointed overlapping narrative structure. Yet the film never feels bloated and Jung packs in enough symbolism, metaphors, and recurring imagery for a whole auteurist career.

One gets lost in the rhythms and tones of Cafe Noir, entranced by the dynamic attention to faces, expressions, and body movement. Shot on the Red HD camera, the film’s imagery burns with a sharp crispness, even when Jung shifts his film into a high contrast black and white for a particularly haunting series of promises and betrayals. This is a beast of a melodrama, a film that cannot be digested in one viewing. Many of the vignettes don’t always add up, but each sustains the overall mood of yearning the film sustains throughout. Through the trials and tribulations of these many emblematic characters, Jung always comes back to one phrase- in this modern expansive world, “there must be someone out there to love you back.” By the end of Cafe Noir, the answer is still muddled by the haunting complexities of unrequited love. The incredibly intricate process of relationships seems to be far more important than the typical and expected happy ending.

Tomorrow brings two films, an interview with Life With Murder director John Kastner, and the headache-inducing Los Angeles Laker’s celebration parade. Stay tuned.