On a trip to the Locarno Film Festival and on super-sizing movies

You spend nine days in Locarno shuttling between films. Looking for that high, that strange urge to see something you’ve never seen before and that makes you look differently at film, open other doors, make you see stuff with new eyes.

In the end, it’s just a film, though, really; there’s really not that much more to it.

But each new dimming of the lights and opening of the curtain brings with it a hope for something else, something more, something new. Something that Hollywood can’t conjure anymore, or - if it does - only every now and then. Too many people seem to be finding it in the latest Mission: Impossible film, Fallout – Tom Cruise saving the world yet again from itself in a thriller that would have been a lot better if it hadn’t been supersized to a 150 minutes value meal and should have stayed lean and mean at 105 minutes or so.

Nothing against director and writer Christopher McQuarrie, whose heart and mind are in the right place as far as nifty B-series spy pictures go. But why do you need to push it to two and a half hours when all you need to say has been said at the 90 minute mark and all that’s left is some more IMAX-customized spectacular stunt work to pad out the remaining length?

Mind you, Hollywood isn’t the only one to supersize. Case in point was Locarno 2018’s keystone competition entry and all-around challenge, Argentine director Mariano Llinás infuriatingly/breathtakingly never-ending story, La Flor. It’s 14 and a half hours long – you read that right – and was screened only twice over the 10 days the Swiss festival runs, either as a series of eight “bite-sized” “acts” (from 80 to 120 minutes), or in the director’s preferred form of three marathon-sized parts (running, respectively, three and a half hours, six hours and five hours). Yes, we’re back to Jacques Rivette’s self-perpetuating mystery machines or Raul Ruiz’s constant narrative shuffling, but done with a whole other playfulness.

Llinás himself points it out in his on-screen prologue: La Flor is a film made for its four main actresses – Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa and Laura Paredes – but also with them. All appear in the all of the film’s six episodes, playing different characters in each of the plots, presented sequentially. Essentially, what you’re watching if you see La Flor as Llinás intended it is a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood’s double programmes - two films plus cartoons, newsreels, program fillers etc for the price of one (even though Part 2 is entirely taken up by Episode 3). There’s no particular stamina required: Part 1 is a calculatedly inviting opening, with a taut, tight “curse of the mummy” B-movie feel leading into a gaudy melodrama about a husband-and-wife pop star duo that is breaking apart just as her assistant gets involved in a really strange mystery about the fountain of eternal youth.

These are cliffhangers that Llinás warns you right from the start won’t be solved. The dirty little secret of the film is that the plots don’t really have an ending (the only conventionally structured, open-and-shut plot is Episode 5), and the director’s graphical representation of the plot’s movements creates a design akin to a flower (hence the title). But Llinás’ wager is that you’ll get so taken in by the film’s structure and scope and by the genre mishmash he gleefully essays that you won’t either mind or notice (or both) the length.

He may, however, have shot himself in the foot by the sheer gargantuan size of the beast; essentially, La Flor is all but unreleasable in this shape, doomed to become (like Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me Tangere) one of those much-talked but little-seen oddities making the festival and cinematheque rounds. Nothing wrong with that, it’s the natural habitat of most features premiering in film festivals, for better or worse, and some of them really don’t deserve much better. But there’s a sense La Flor deserved more than just that.

There was more than just La Flor, but on the whole I didn’t find as much to dazzle me as the lights went out in Locarno’s 2018 line-up as I hoped to. I was particularly disappointed by Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor’s inability to rise above the festival-formatted, Latin-American-coming-of-age mid-level vacuum that has doomed lesser directors than her, with her third feature, Too Late to Die Young. The film surprisingly took the Best Director prize, which is I suppose a recognition of the many formal qualities of Sotomayor’s film, and of Inti Briones’ stellar lensing, rather than of its somewhat meh writing. I was also disappointed by Iraqi exile Abbas Fahdel’s pretty but slight puppy-love pastoral Yara, a film whose sincerity and peacefulness aren’t enough to overcome what I felt as uninspired, conventional lensing and stop-start rhythms. It was all the more painful as I had really liked his sucker-punch Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, a powerful first-person documentary about Bagdad pre- and post-US invasion. 

On the other hand, I couldn’t quite know what to make of German Jan Bonny’s in-your-face, sex-and-violence reverse-hippy Winter’s Tale, a confrontational look at the inarticulate world od Germany’s most inept right-wing terror cell. It’s a Jules & Jim trio protesting something they themselves don’t even know what, held together by a desperate need to love and belong and by a desire to become some sort of romantic xenophobic killers on the run. It’s a dark movie: messy, disagreeable, uncomfortable and yet oddly riveting, occasionally condescending, grating, grueling, but never dismissive of those we too often dismiss. It’s a provocation, and a deliberate one, and one that’s stuck with me.

Winter’s Tale is a sort of darker twin of Virgil Vernier’s apocalyptic chain-link of diffusely interconnected stories, Sophia Antipolis, using the contemporary setting of the Côte d’Azur technology park of the title like Lucas did in THX-1138 or Godard in Alphaville: to suggest a future-past that didn’t quite pan out as desired, its service drones imprisoned in the Kafkian labyrinths of a capitalist ghetto for the have-nots under the sickly glow of street lamps, improvised garage gyms and sunburn. 

Though it came away unjustly empty-handed, Sophia Antipolis was a standout in the Cineasti del presente parallel sidebar, and it found a kindred spirit in Singaporean Yeo Siew Hua’s dreamy neon-noir A Land Imagined, the surprise winner of the main competition Golden Leopard, where a missing laborer in a land-reclaiming project in Singapore becomes key to an ingenious meditation on the city-state’s ambiguous relationship with its own history: a forward-looking state that aims to project a futuristic image while building itself on the shoulders of guest workers who have no recourse for mistreatment and exploitation. If you just want to look at A Land Imagines as an intriguing dream-pop mystery, you’re welcome to, but its high-tech social-sci-fi overlay must have rung a bell with jury president Jia Zhang-ke.

The surprises came from elsewhere. Tune in for the next instalment.


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