Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A ticket to Bizarro World”

Posted on December 26, 2014


Notes from a random day at the 12th Chennai International Film Festival.

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Under normal circumstances, this would have given me an aneurysm. I walked into a film a couple of minutes late. If that wasn’t bad enough, I did not know the name of the film. I know you think I’m being overdramatic with all that italicising, but this is me we’re talking about, someone who’s in his seat well in time and who thinks the Censor Certificate is a part of the film. But when it comes to film festivals, you’re in a bit of a Bizarro World. Up is down. Left is right. And Baradwaj Rangan checked his phone every now and then as the movies were playing. That’s right. When you walk into the theatre in the morning and don’t leave till night, there’s no way you can still follow your Ten Commandments of Film Viewing: Thou Shalt Not Open Crinkly Wrappers Once The Film Has Begun, Thou Shalt Not Switch On Your Smartphone, and so on. More than a few viewers made crinkly-wrapper noises, and I ignored them most benignly. The poor souls, caught in the vortex of endless movie-viewing – surely they need their nourishment.

It took me a full ten minutes to stop obsessing over the fact that I was watching a film I did not know the name of – but then I got caught up in the story and things were okay. What language was this film in? I heard snatches of French. Some people seemed to be speaking Hebrew, given all the talk about Mossad and the Israeli locations. But the style of the film was pure Hollywood. It was a slick product – jaunty score, spilt screens, CCTV footage, a crack team on a secret mission, interrogation scenes, an ominous-sounding nuclear program, $100 million in diamonds, the works. It was far-fetched and fun, and not at all the kind of film you expect to find in a festival. But that, perhaps, is the point. It was also a reminder that not all “foreign films” are grim stretches of great art. I cannot tell you how relieved I am right now that the film has ended and I’ve looked it up and can stop referring to it as “it” and “the film.” It has a name, and it’s the French-Israeli movie Kidon. Catch it someday you feel like some undemanding entertainment, but want to claim, at the same time, that you’re not just watching some Hollywood junk. This is French-Israeli junk. That has a certain ring to it, non?

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How do you know you’re in a film-festival screening? Because the whistles and claps when the name “Kim Ki-duk” appears on screen rivals the whistles and claps when the name “Rajini” usually appears on screen. Then there was silence as Moebius began – shocked silence, I imagine, as the first few minutes involve a woman attempting to punish her philandering husband by severing his organ (and I am not talking about his ear), and when he wakes up in time and throws her out of their bedroom, she wanders into her son’s bedroom and severs his organ (again, I am not talking about his ear). Then she disappears. The man scours the Internet for information on how to fix this peculiar plumbing problem. There’s gang rape, sadomasochistic sex, and probably the only instance on screen of men pleasuring themselves by scraping their skin with rough stones. At points, I couldn’t bear to look. I’ve seen my share of out-there sex on screen – In the Realm of the Senses, The Pillow Book, Antichrist – but Moebius is something else.

There’s not a line of dialogue, and it’s not as if the situations are like the ones in Pushpak, where conversation was either impossible or unnecessary. Here, people are in the same room, and the situations demand that they say something, but they don’t – so you’re watching stuff that’s stylised in the extreme. It’s fascinating. It’s bizarre. It’s one-of-a-kind. But is it any good? That question I never got around to answering because the audience had begun laughing out loud at the increasingly ludicrous goings-on, and after a while, I began to find things very funny too. I’m sorry, but laughter is probably the only response to the sight of a chopped-off organ (by now you know I am not talking about the ear, right?) landing up on the road and being run over by a truck. This screening of Moebius was a great example of the effects of watching movies with an audience. Sometimes, you cannot help being influenced by their reaction, and if they’ve decided that this psychologically messed-up story is a sex comedy (as in, a film about sex that they’ve decided to treat as a comedy), then you have no option but to watch a sex comedy.

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Midway through Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, I had a startling realisation: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is essentially Bergman filtered through a vibrant, modern, casual-seeming pop sensibility. (In other words, Linklater, at least in these films, is a Bergman with a sense of humour and who takes himself not-too-seriously.) Think about it. Most Bergman films are existential talkathons, but Scenes from a Marriage is especially so – and what is Before Midnight if not scenes from a marriage? The Linklater connection struck me because Winter Sleep is structured as a series of conversations between the various characters, and the Bergman connection came about because of the rather deep and philosophical nature of these conversations – about class, religion, work, good and evil, and what it is, sometimes, to be human. Also, doesn’t the title remind you of Winter Light? (It’s one of my favourite Bergmans. Watch it if you haven’t.)

After the astonishing visuals in Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, I expected more of the same here. There’s a lovely, grave zoom-in on the head of the protagonist, Aydin, as he stares out of a window. And a little later, after a little boy throws a rock and smashes Aydin’s car window, several shots are beautifully framed around this broken window, with its spidery web of cracked glass. But this is an interior film, and we quickly realise that it isn’t so much about visuals as words. Some of the conversations are breathtaking, especially one between Aydin and his sister. Emotions suppressed for years rise to the surface and we see how two people can love each other and yet harbour a hundred festering hates. But not all conversations work as well, and the film, after a point, becomes a tad tedious. (It runs three-and-a-quarter hours.) One moment made me laugh out loud, though, when someone says Omar Sharif was so “humble” because he posed for pictures with everyone when he came to shoot a film in this area. Clearly, it’s not just we who want our celebrities to be paragons of humility.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.