Earlier last month we headed down to the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) to see all that was on offer. Here we discuss the highs, the lows as well as our general thoughts on the festival.
Participating in this MIFF wrap-up: managing editor Jeremy Elphick, Sydney editor Brad Mariano, sub-editor Jessica Ellicott and staff writer Ivan Cerecina.
Brad: Firstly, I thought this was a tremendous line-up, at the very least, as top-heavy as I’ve ever seen. By our own site’s parameters, I gave out 5 Highly Recommendeds, which is higher than one would reasonably hope for. Though several of these were conspicuous absences at our home turf in SFF, which I suppose hits at maybe the difference in the sorts of films both festivals program. But let’s start with what was clearly 4:3’s consensus favourite film of the festival, Tsai Ming Liang’s quite extraordinary film, Stray Dogs. Jess, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it your highlight, right?
Jess: Not at all, it was definitely my favourite new film of the festival and possibly the year. Not to repeat too much of what I said in my review, but I think Tsai Ming Liang is up there with the best visual artists working today, not just in film. I was sad to miss his other film, Journey to the West, which was another one of our staff highlights.
Brad: Yeah, Journey to the West was spectacular – I hope it shows up somewhere again. Matilda definitely hits at the brilliance of the film in her review – but it was a unique cinematic experience, if not a traditional feature film. But Stray Dogs I loved – I tweeted after the film that it had two of the best eating scenes I’d ever seen.
Jess: Agreed. I will never look at a cabbage the same way again. It probably also helped that you had just had what was possibly the best fried chicken of your life.
Brad: True, the many masterpieces I saw at MIFF came second only to my discovery of Hot Star Chicken. 1
Jeremy: Hard to Be a God, Story of My Death, Timbuktu were easily my favourites. I’m sure Stray Dogs would’ve been up there too, but I was too late to the session and ended up catching the Nas documentary – Time Is Illmatic – which was easily the best music documentary I’ve seen in a while. I think I expressed how I felt about that one fairly strongly in my review. Agreed though, Brad is on point with this festival selection being an incredibly strong assortment. I don’t think I gave out a Not Recommended, and I gave out a way higher percentage of Highly Recommended reviews than I did at SFF – maybe it’s the selection, maybe it’s the timing, maybe it’s the actual length of the festival, who knows…
Ivan: Spot on about Stray Dogs. Those last two shots hit hard – I didn’t realise how much I liked the film until that ending, which gives even more emotional weight to everything we’ve seen before. Lee Kang-Sheng is phenomenal. Others I liked were the two Wiseman’s – it’s an inspiration that he’s still going strong – Godard’s newest and Jauja… Really it was a great program, I’m not sure I’d give a Not Recommended to any of the films I saw either, they were all at the very least interesting enough conceptually that they were worth seeing.
Jess: Brad – speaking of favourites, yours was without a doubt James Gray’s The Immigrant, yes? After waiting over a year for it to finally surface in Australia after it premiered in competition at Cannes in 2013 and then disappeared.
Brad: Yeah, I was a little suspicious of my own reaction to the film. I love James Gray and was anticipating the film so much, that I was really surprised to have my already high expectations blown away. Such a beautiful, measured film, and with tremendous performances. Cotillard is is absolutely phenomenal, and that final shot is still resonating with me. I wrote my longest review ever and yet I’m still thinking of elements of that film that I didn’t get to mention. Suffice to say, I’ll be going to see it again during its (unfortunately, extremely limited) theatrical release later this month. This was the best movie of the year for me, just about a perfect film. But you guys didn’t respond as strongly…
Jess: It was the last film we saw at the festival, so any possible emotional response was pretty worn down by that stage. It was certainly a very finely crafted melodrama, and it is impossible not to be entranced by Cotillard’s performance.
I had also just seen Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, which was a real shot to the head, in terms of the glorious barrage of filth it throws at you over its three hours. We were so lucky to be able to see it – it’s conspicuously absent from a lot of upcoming major international festivals, which is a real injustice to its undeniable achievements. Ivan didn’t quite get on board with it, though.
Ivan: Yeah look, it’s been a while since I saw Hard to Be a God and I’m still struggling to find a proper critical response to the film. I don’t think I have one; the film is such an onslaught of repulsive imagery and sound relentlessly laid end to end that for me it bypassed all of my mental processes and went straight to my stomach. There’s really no room for reflection with this film, just gut reaction (literally). Maybe this says more about me as a viewer, but I couldn’t help but feel anything but nausea at the end of the film. Yes it is cool that someone turned a relatively complex sci-fi novel into an almost completely abstract mess of a period piece (not meant pejoratively) and I can’t fault it in terms of its dedication to the universe it creates. The last shot is also pretty fantastic. But… I couldn’t get on board with it. I guess that’s still not a proper critical response!
Jeremy: Hard to Be a God really stuck with me. I thought it was 90 minutes long – I read the program wrong. That said, when it began careering well into the second hour I realised I hadn’t noticed at all. It felt short despite its length and that’s always a good sign. It’s rare to get a film that is so unashamedly absurd yet simultaneously eerily serious. It seemed to have these incredible contrasts and juxtapositions throughout the whole film. It’s like, you had this gargantuan epic of an adventure on the largest scale, you a God as the main character, yet there were so many imperfections in the way acted – and the way the whole thing was shot around him. It felt a lot like Andrei Rublev had been thrown headfirst into an episode of Tim and Eric or The Eric Andre Show. The attention to detail was so very rarely focused on any aesthetic that was tied to the main plot, but often something in the periphery – a man throwing some mud at someone’s head and their reaction being less than cordial. That’s probably what I found the most profound part of the whole flick, how it was framed in this insanely dense field of visual noise. At first this weird hypersaturation was a bit disorienting, and I wasn’t able to focus too much on the actual plot of the film, but once I settled into the pace the depth of every frame became my favourite aspect of the flick. I loved it. The last shot as well, obviously there’s some consensus it was an amazing way to end, but the almost comic change of pace that jumped to it was part of the complete unpredictability, absurdity and general break from any real cinematic convention that defined Hard to Be a God.
Brad: I called it my favourite film of the year, a title it held for roughly 5 days until I saw The Immigrant. Yeah, what a visceral experience – never has the importance of sound in a movie theatre been so clear to me, unforgivingly so, in a way that keeps you on edge and combined with the POV, almost physically involved in a film to a rare extent. It’s an unsettling and unpleasant film, profoundly so. I covered my thoughts already in an overlong review (a recurring theme at the festival for me) here. A recurring niggling issue at MIFF for me was the often walkout-prone audience, but I didn’t begrudge anyone who found Hard to Be a God to be a little much…
Jess: The walkouts were a real distraction for me, especially throughout Jauja, which was such a quiet and contemplative film (obviously too much so for some). What were they expecting? I think most came for Viggo Mortensen, but weren’t reckoning on Alonso.
Brad: I also wonder if the popular ticket system – the Festival passport – has a negative influence on the attitudes for some patrons. If you can freely book as many films as you want, and are seeing 4-5-6 films a day, I suppose some people wouldn’t have too many of the qualms that would make us stick through films we weren’t enjoying (namely, our hard-earned poor student money, or reviewing duties). It was particularly bad in Jauja, but I will admit it took a while for me to get into – the first half hour (relatively plot heavy, for an Alonso film) I wasn’t really feeling, but you get sucked into its rhythm and the beautiful images. And anyone who missed the epilogue would have a very misguided idea of the film as a whole. Exactly what that whole is is anyone’s guess (my theory – an elaborate fatherhood metaphor), but no doubt this was another highlight. And here at 4:3 we clearly do love a good use of the ol’ square Academy ratio…
Ivan: Yeah Academy ratio is my shit. I really liked this, it stuck with me like no other film at the festival. The more I think about it, the more I feel that giving it a Recommended was selling it a bit short. I think it’s the sort of film that has an effect on you after it’s finished, at least as much as it does while you’re actually watching it. It’s like that Kiarostami quote where he talks about his favourite films being the ones that you reconstruct after you leave the theatre. I think that is definitely the kind of film Jauja is – those last few minutes are still stuck in my head. Which is not to say that it isn’t an immersive viewing experience. It absolutely is. One of the best of the festival for me, would love to see it again. Pity about all the walkouts!
Jess: Did you guys walk out of anything? I would have walked out of Ping Pong Summer, if I didn’t have to review it. My personal favourite was the guy who walked out ten hours into Out 1. C’mon man, only two hours to go!
Brad: No – I have a pretty strong no walkouts policy (though by the sounds of it, I would have been running for the hills about 10 minutes into Wetlands), which is not to say I didn’t dislike any film at the festival, but most of these I had signed myself up to review. Life of Riley tested my patience and I disliked it strongly, but I persevered. And Trespassing Bergman, a very bad documentary with zero academic value at least was pretty compulsively watchable as cinephile porn.
Jess: Yeah, I’m pretty amazed Isabelle made it through Wetlands, given how viscerally ill it made her feel. None of our faves seemed to make it into the MIFF people’s choice poll, although quite a few of those had we had already covered at SFF.
Brad: Well another surprising favourite of ours that definitely seems to be at odds with the general MIFF audience was Albert Serra’s enigmatic, atmospheric Story of My Death. We were lucky/crazy enough to interview Serra as soon as we got on the ground there, and his film didn’t disappoint. Of all the films I loved at the festival, perhaps this is the hardest film to describe why – but it’s a singular film, and the way darkness comes through, the metaphysical presence of Dracula and what he represents, as Casanova is dying, hits some sublime moments. Beauty comes through in its pretty distinct aesthetic – it looks like one of those 70s European masterpieces that you would only find on VHS – combined with some really incredible sound design. Another long film, but I’d watch it again in a heartbeat. And I don’t want to spoil some of the truly unexpected joys of the film, but two separate scenes of Casanova’s crass bodily functions were two of the most unforgettable images all festival.
Jeremy: Yeah, Story of My Death was clearly something very keen to divide its audience – my session had a few good handfuls of walkouts; I thought it was great. Period pieces are generally my least favourite thing in the world, so Serra was having to dig himself out of a pretty massive hole at the start of the movie, and the best part of Story of My Death is I can’t pinpoint at what point I shifted from being incredibly hesitant to completely glued to the whole thing. The introduction of Dracula borders on humour – you laugh, it’s joyous almost – but is simultaneously dead serious – it’s enthralling, it’s hypnotic, it’s not something you can walk away from. Wait, no; it’s definitely something you can walk away from. About 30 people did. That said, I think those are people who should reconsider how they approach going to the movies because even if this is a film that you hate, I don’t think there’s a strong reason to walk out. It was described as half-way between a good trip and a bad trip by Serra. I thought that was a great way of putting it. The whole film drifts in and out of this surreal space with such a casual pacing, and toys around with terror and death with the same playfulness. It’s all very strange. I think that’s probably why I liked it so much. The running trend among my favourite films was pretty clear: they all tried to mess around with conventions in a way that made them really distinct or… they were just beautiful on an aesthetic level.
Ivan: I’m glad you two enjoyed it so much, I would have loved to see it again after Munich. I saw a lot of great films at Melbourne but I don’t think any of them can beat Story in terms of sheer atmosphere. As I wrote down in my notes right after seeing it: “Starts off Barry Lyndon, finishes BLACK METAL.” I’m also glad you guys mentioned something about the film’s tone, which really is so ambiguous. Yes it’s serious and a meditation on darkness and power, but Dracula turns up dressed like an Orthodox priest! There’s an element of ridiculousness to it as well that makes it great as a piece of adaptation.
Jeremy: I should probably throw it out here now, was I the only person who saw Timbuktu? I feel it’s the film that stuck with me the most. Possibly even my favourite of the festival. Haven’t seen cinematography that beautiful in a very long time, and such a disregard for pacing conventions too. I went into most of the reasons I loved it in my review, but yeah, I think it was my favourite of the festival.
Jess: One of the many clashes with Out 1, unfortunately.
Brad: Yes, Out 1, the schedule killer – too mammoth to talk about here. But let’s anyway! It’s not hyperbole to say this was the main reason I booked myself to come down to Melbourne in the middle of uni semester. Even if I’d hated the film, it was such an experience to tick basically the mother of all boxes on the cinephile bucket list. But for a 13 hour film, it ends up being quite a lot of fun, wouldn’t you say?
Jess: Sure, especially about halfway through, when the various threads of the narrative start coming together, it becomes very exciting, almost revelatory, and the long, difficult passages of experimental theatre rehearsals suddenly all seem worth it. Its playfulness with narrative and mysterious characters reminded me a lot of his other great film, Celine and Julie Go Boating, which came out three years later.
Jeremy: I was amongst the minority that didn’t see it, but I feel that I still experienced some pretty mammoth events throughout the week. I mean, Future and Ciara did split up (for concerned readers, they have since gotten back together.) But on a serious note, I definitely regret not seeing Out 1 and the boldness of the MIFF crew to put on a 13 hour film is something that other festivals should take note of. Retrospectives should go for brave picks like this. Hiroshima mon amour is a beautiful film, but it wasn’t a remotely interesting pick up. I like this trend. Maybe SFF can screen Berlin Alexanderplatz or something.
Jess: If only… but I remain hopeful in that regard. I’m probably biased, but if they can program a James Benning retrospective I think anything is possible.
Ivan: Another vote for Berlin Alexanderplatz at SFF in 2015! Out 1 somehow lived up to my obscenely high expectations of it. I am a really big fan of Rivette’s work, this might have just confirmed my suspicions that he was/is the best of the New Wave bunch. As a film, its almost a compendium of everything that makes him so great: the mix of theatre and cinema, the freedom of the actors, the philosophical approach to narrative. It was all so ingeniously interwoven, but at the same time it never compromises on its sense of fun. I really warmed to the theatre segments by the end – I know this divided us a little, and you could almost hear the collective disappointment in the audience when they came on. It just wouldn’t be the same without them though…
Brad: Yeah, they’re pretty intense, and by the end you realise you have spent a good 4 hours watching hippies rolling around on the floor screaming. It reminded me a bit, however, of Umberto Eco’s novel In the Name of the Rose. Eco has spoken before how the first 100 pages or so are deliberately hard-going – lots of historical background, really dry stuff – as a sort of obstacle to readers, but also it makes the later pleasures that much more satisfying. I think this is definitely the structure of Out 1. There’s a great meta moment after the first hour where they reflect on the previous 45 minutes of improvisation with “that wasn’t very good.” Like, you’re telling us!?!? If you put the hard yards in, I think the later sections become that much more satisfying, even if it’s not a direct narrative ‘payoff’ per se, there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from persevering through some, let’s be honest, pretty trying and alienating stuff. It’s one of Rivette’s particular experiments in spectatorship and duration, one that few directors would attempt. As Jess said, you do feel bad for the people who watched several hours and quit…
Ivan: Oh for sure, I think it gets better as it goes along (Episode 7 was my favourite). I quite enjoyed the way it was programmed too, spread as it was over the course of the weekend with breaks in between. I guess it had the double function of respecting the original TV/serial format as well as giving us a chance to talk through everything that was going on. We even took sides about who we thought was the best experimental theatre troupe and who was really part of the Big Conspiracy. I had a great time.
Brad: Took sides is generous – we were all on team Prometheus Bound as I recall! In any case, I can’t speak highly enough of MIFF’s retrospective programming, and I didn’t think I’d find a retrospective stream more important to me than Rivette’s opus, but the Commedia all’italiana group of films were an incredible discovery. I saw Il sorpasso with Jess, which was one of the most purely enjoyable films I’ve ever seen. To see such a brilliant, incisive comedy in a packed theatre – well, that’s a special experience. Along with Criterion releasing the film on Blu-ray this year, it seems these sort of films might slowly start to get the critical appreciation in the West that the more serious classical Italian fare – Antonioni, Visconti, Rossellini, Pasolini – has gotten for decades. Lattuada’s Mafioso, Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style, Monicelli’s I soliti ignoti and de Sica’s Il Boom – not a dud in the bunch. The only quibble I’d have would be MIFF’s maddening tendency to translate so many of the film titles in their programs. Il sorpasso is a wonderful title in the original Italian – ‘sorpasso’ meaning both overtaking (which happens plenty in the film) as well as ‘the fast lane’ metaphorically – The Easy Life is pretty unsatisfactory as a translation. But substance over form! This film was a masterpiece of the Italian cinema, with a dynamic between Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintingant was simply magic.
Jess: Il sorpasso was the real discovery of the festival for me, I went into it not quite knowing what to expect, and there was pure joy transposed on screen. I don’t think any film I’ve seen has so successfully conveyed that kind of mad, Dean Moriarty-style joy of living. The retrospectives were definitely worth the trip down to Melbourne alone. I think having the ACMI and the Melbourne Cinematheque must have something to do with the quality and scale of their retrospective programming.
Brad: That may be true, on the flipside, I’d gladly trade one good film for a less depressing festival main space. Maybe we kept picking the wrong times, but the Forum lounge had nothing on our Hub at the Town Hall – it was rarely even half full, the food always seemed to have run out, and the layout of the space – ostensibly a theatre – wasn’t really conducive to a cool hang out area. With such an engaged community and so many great venues, this was probably the only lacking area for me.
Jess: I think everyone must have been at some cool small bar we hadn’t heard of. For sure, the strong point of the festival for me was definitely the films themselves – the international festival vibe was somewhat lacking.
Brad: Two interesting films that I ‘liked not loved’ that a few of us saw were Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York and Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History. I liked both, but I don’t have too strong feelings about either.
Jess: I had a good time with Welcome to New York, with how brazen it was, totally disregarding good taste in order to serve its unforgiving, monstrous depiction of Strauss-Kahn. I can’t say the same for Norte, which I really wanted to like given it’s Lav Diaz and all, but found quite heavy-handed and difficult to get on board with. But all in all, a fantastic first experience with the festival and I think we can all safely say it won’t be our last.
|Highly Recommended||Recommended||Not Recommended||Strongly Not Recommended|
Hard to Be a God
Journey to the West
Jacky in the Kingdom of Women
La última película
Norte, the End of History
Time Is Illmatic
The Search for Weng Weng
What Now? Remind Me
Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
How Strange to Be Named Federico
Joy of Man’s Desiring
Life After Beth
Life of Riley
Ping Pong Summer
See all our MIFF coverage here