One Critic in Search of an Auteur

47th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Mezinárodní Filmový Festival Karlovy Vary), June 29 – July 7 2012

  • Pele Akher (The Last Step), dir. Ali Mosaffa

    In 1957, in Art, a magazine for which he was a harsh critic, the 25-year-old François Truffaut wrote: “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure. The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.” This was two years before he started to practise what he preached.

    Every time I visit a film festival, I go in search of what Truffaut defined as an auteur. But, even at an extensive film festival like Karlovy Vary, an auteur is hard to find, especially among the films in competition. Where is the new Jean Renoir, Yasujiro Ozu, Alfred Hitchcock, Carl Dreyer, Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson or Ingmar Bergman, all of whom had a distinctive signature? It’s no good saying that an auteur can only be recognised after several films when a personal style and vision can be discerned. Could anybody have been in any doubt that Orson Welles was an auteur with his first film Citizen Kane (1941), if that term had been used? And what about the first features by Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless / À bout de soufflé/, 1960) and Truffaut himself (The 400 Blows / Les quatre cents coups/, 1959). Many years ago, when I saw Alexander Sokurov’s Mother and Son (Mat i syn, 1997) in Berlin, I immediately knew that I was in the presence of an auteur, although I had never seen one of his films, nor had even heard of him.
    Pele Akher (The Last Step), dir. Ali Mosaffa
    Despite the lack of new auteurs, W. B. Yeats’ lines still echo in my head: “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” Although there were films of undoubted quality to be seen in competition – only two could make some claim to auteurship. Unusual among Iranian directors, Ali Mosaffa, is a formalist rather than a social realist. Seven years ago, Mosaffa made a deep impression in Karlovy Vary with his first feature Portrait of a Lady Far Away (Sima-ye zani dar doordast, 2005), starring his exquisite wife Leila Hatami. It has taken him seven years to come out with his second, The Last Step (Pele Akher), an intriguing, cryptic, Pirandellian tragic-comic study of death and transfiguration. Mosaffa himself plays the husband of Hatami (Best Actress at Karlovy Vary), who moves between the past, the present and the future. With this film, Mosaffa has established himself as an auteur to be followed.

    Ektoras Lygizos still needs to prove his auteurship claims, but his first feature, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food (To agori troei to fagito tou pouliou) goes some way towards it. Based on Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger, and updated to Greece today, this stark allegory of contemporary Greece clinically follows – with mainly a POV handheld camera – the desperate attempts of an unemployed, educated young man (the excellent Yannis Papadopoulos) to find something to eat. Because he’s too proud to take charity from anyone, he has to resort to extreme measures to get some nourishment, one of them (look away now) being to ejaculate into the palm of his hand and eat his own sperm.
    To agori troei to fagito tou pouliou (Boy Eating the Bird's Food), dir. Ektoras Lygizos
    However, as at most festivals, one had to go to the retrospectives to find auteurs. There was a comprehensive tribute to Jean-Pierre Melville; the rarely-seen shorts of Michelangelo Antonioni and midnight screenings of six films by Dario Argento, including his latest, Dracula. (Watch out for Peter Strickland’s masterful pastiche of Argento in the forthcoming Berberian Sound Studio – you can only pastiche a director with a distinctive style.)

    Also programmed was Leos Carax’s Holy Motors a cinephiliac’s delight, with references to Georges Franju, Jean Cocteau, The Wizard of Oz, and Jean-Louis Barrault’s portrayal in Jean Renoir’s The Testament of Doctor Cordelier (Le testament du Docteur Cordelier, 1959). But mostly, in Denis Lavant’s extraordinary performance, it is a homage to the career of Lon Chaney, ‘the man of a thousand faces’. The film is also a welcome return to a real auteur. Thank goodness auteurism is still alive and well!

    Ronald Bergan, Great Britain