‘Taboo-busting’ is a phrase that is often heard in connection with Film Festivals; I have seen several films at the Festival over the years that have tried to resolve the problem of ‘real’ sex in movies, usually to spectacular dull or unpleasant effect (the aptly-titled “Anatomy of Hell” springs to mind). The only film I’ve seen that features real sex that actually works as a movie is “Shortbus,” which had the good sense to include some humour and drop all the navel-gazing.
In most European countries films get higher certificates for violence than sex, and isn’t that fairly reasonable? That several of these movies are French may not be surprising, nor that the country that sees an orgasm as a ‘little death’ would make such glum movies. Perhaps they were so determined not to be pornographic they made sure the audience had a grim time, a trend continued by Michael Winterbottom in “Nine Songs.”
There seems to be debate online about whether the onscreen humping in Sexual Chronicles of a French Family is simulated or not; I am pretty sure some of it, at least, is, but the scenes aren’t shot or acted like the tedious, carefully lit and entirely artificial sex scenes that occasionally punctuate Hollywood fare. They are refreshingly frank, which is the point: the film is about a woman who wants to be more frank with her family about everyone’s sexuality, because she feels everyone is essentially left on their own and in the dark about it. It is not – despite being French and having that title – about incest, nor is it pornographic, although that doesn’t mean it isn’t sexy. The film, directed by Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr, is sexy, funny and sweet as well.
It’s hardly a perfect film – by the end it feels slightly overstretched – but the reviews I’ve seen have been baffling. Slant Magazine says it offers little ‘beyond basic titillation’ – which, it suggests, you can find online. True, but I can also laugh at videos of cats on Youtube, and I still want to laugh at a comedy (besides, the film offers more than titillation). The AV Club says it is ‘untroubled by any of the dramatic issues it raises,’ but the short-circuiting of the obvious dramatic outcomes was one of my favourite things about the movie. A character enjoys being filmed during sex – why? Because it just turns her on. It doesn’t lead to a scene where her boyfriend thinks she isn’t intimate enough. The husband and wife do not have big arguments when they admit they are attracted to other people. When we discover a particularly good-looking and popular character is engaged in male-male-female threesomes, it’s not because of repressed homosexuality; he is quite happily bisexual. I’m sure some of the critics at the screening I saw it with will say they found it boring (they must live more exciting lives than I give them credit for), but, well, nobody left the cinema.
The Unspeakable Act has a certain superficial similarity to “Sexual Chronicles of a French Movie” (and is dedicated to Eric Rohmer), but it’s like that film turned inside out. “The Unspeakable Act” of the title does this time refer to incest – ‘the “i” word,’ as the protagonist calls it. She is a smart, introverted girl called Jackie who adores her brother Matthew, in a way that borders on the unhealthy. She is sexually active but not interested in other boys, in part because she doesn’t know them well enough, and she doesn’t know anyone as well as she knows Matthew. Jackie is played by a young actress called Tallie Medel, and she is the main reason to see the film; she is memorable and engaging in a potentially difficult role.
I was less crazy about the film taking place around her. While it’s in some ways a more intelligent movie than “Sexual Chronicles,” it’s also oppressively arch – we seem to have reached a point in indie cinema where lack of emotion is equated with truth (thanks, Wes Anderson). The emotional detachment of the characters at times felt lazy, particularly in relation to the mother, and the camerawork is frustratingly static (I spotted the camera moving twice); furthermore almost all of the important information about the character and her relationships is imparted via voice-over, which felt like cheating to me. A static camera, incidentally, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as Scorsese has said, a static camera is objective and a moving camera is subjective; here is a story that desperately needed a more subjective view-point.
I followed “The Unspeakable Act” with Brake, in which Stephen Dorff plays a Secret Service Agent who wakes up in some kind of Plexiglas coffin in the trunk of a car. He has a radio on which he can communicate with his captor and, apparently, another government worker in the same situation. The camera almost never leaves Dorff, who is told he will be released if he reveals secret information about the President’s bunker.
Jean-Luc Godard said the way to criticise a movie is to make another movie; the critique of “Brake” has already been made, and in case you can’t guess, it’s called “Buried.” The two films aren’t identical, but they’re too similar for this one to work if you’ve seen “Buried,” and if you haven’t you may be frustrated both by the lack of tension and claustrophobia here (Dorff’s character is more of a hero here than Ryan Reynold’s character in “Buried,” and therefore less sympathetic). You will probably also be irritated by the frankly idiotic ending, which I anticipated from about ten minutes in. Had “Buried” not been made this would be an interesting enough B-movie. But the differences between it and “Buried” make it weaker, and the similarities make it pointless.
Dragon, one of the more entertaining films I’ve seen at this year’s Festival, is a Chinese martial arts movie combined with a detective story and… well, frankly, “A History of Violence.” The set-up for the story is so similar, indeed, to that great Cronenberg movie that the film almost feels like an unofficial ‘re-imagining.’ It concerns a quiet family man living in a village in 1917 who attacks and kills a pair of thugs trying to rob the local shop. A detective investigates the man, convinced he must be one of the ’72 Demons,’ a notorious gang of killers.
Although the storyline is at times too similar to the Cronenberg film, the film is engaging enough in its own right; it has excellent photography, for a start, and has fun both with the well-choreographed fight sequences and with visualising the physiological impact of the punches and kicks. As in an episode of “House,” the camera penetrates the human body and CGI shows us what is happening to the nerves, muscles and blood-flow. It has none of the depth of “A History of Violence,” but it’s aimed more at the level of shallow entertainment, which it more than fulfils.
Tomorrow is my last day of screenings: I eagerly look forward to Brave, the new Disney-Pixar which will close the Festival on Saturday night. I am also keen to see The Imposter, a documentary that I’ve heard a lot of good buzz about, but it starts at the Cameo cinema a minute before “Brave” is due to end at the Cineworld; I am hoping the typically lengthy Pixar closing credits will give me time to make a Mark Renton-esque sprint from one cinema to the other. Tonight sees the return of the Surprise Movie, after a three year absence; I have, obviously, no idea what it will be (my own experiences with the Surprise Movie have included Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” the day before it went on general release), but I imagine it will be introduced by the new artistic director, Chris Fujiwara. Unusually for artistic directors, I’ve noticed Fujiwara at a lot of the press and industry screenings, and he seems to be very enthusiastic and hands-on. While I do not think the Festival is quite what it was a decade ago, I do think Chris Fujiwara may have the right attitude to revive its potential.
This article was first posted on June 28, 2012