Viennale, a very stimulating festival

  • If there is a more stimulating festival than the Viennale, then I don’t know about it. In fact, it’s a little embarrassing at times for someone like me – a self-styled expert on film history – to find that there are always names from the past with which I’m not familiar. Perhaps some of you may scoff at my hitherto ignorance of directors such as the Spanish Paulino Viota, the Canadian Denis Coté, the German, Klaus Lemke, the Austrian Siegfried A. Fruhauf and the silent masters of Austrian cinema, but they were all new to me and, I suspect, to many others.

    Most interesting was Viota’s Contactos, shot clandestinely in Spain under Franco, a strange mixture of Fritz Lang and Ozu. This first of three features by this unknown director (now a professor of film in Madrid) was shot in three interiors and one exterior, from five fixed camera positions, and creates an atmosphere of intrigue and suspicion.

    In addition, there were homages to Eric Rohmer, cinematographer William Lubchansky, who put his talents at the disposal of the most challenging filmmakers like Jean-Marie Straub, and a comprehensive retrospective of the works of oddball director-screenwriter Larry Cohen, who was an articulate presence in Vienna. (He’s alive!).

    Rohmer was also the subject of a touching personal documentary entitled En Compagnie d’Eric Rohmer by Marie Rivière, who appeared in six of the director’s films, notably The Green Ray. Her film reveals a warm and amusing side of Rohmer, reciting favourite poems, singing songs and reminiscing with his friends. Another favourite actress of Rohmer, Béatrice Romand, who was also in The Green Ray, proudly claimed to have been in more Rohmer films than Rivière. She divulged to me that she thought Rivière’s film ‘used Eric cruelly’, and said she was planning to make a biopic of Rohmer. When I indiscreetly recounted this to Rivière, she replied, ‘Béatrice is jealous because I didn’t ask her to be in my film.’

    Clearly, those who have acted with Rohmer, including Andy Gillet of The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, whom I met in Pula this summer, and who appears in Riviere’s film, feel passionately about working with Rohmer.

    Film-makers were the focus of several other documentaries. Those who saw Pedro Costa’s doc on Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet’s Sicilia, will remember Straub pacing up and down in the corridor, smoking cigars, and occasionally interrupting his wife’s editing to make a comment, only to disappear again. In Les Avatars de la mort d’Empedocle, Jean-Paul Toraille shows Straub, never without a cigar nor Huillet, taking his time in deciding where his actors should stand during the shooting of The Death Of Empedocles (1986), based on Holderlin. This documentary comes nearest to communicating the boring process of filmmaking, which I don’t really mean as a compliment, no matter how much I admire Straub.

    Straub’s latest work, the 17-minute O Somma Luce (2009), one of the few made after Huillet’s death, was shown as a prologue to the documentary. It consists of Giorgio Passerone, a professor of Italian literature, ardently reciting the end of Dante’s The Divine Comedy while sitting on a hillside in Tuscany. For some reason, the films starts with a blank screen during which we listen to a recording of the first performance of Edgard Varese’s Deserts in Paris in 1954, during which some members of the audience are heard jeering. Thankfully, the audience in Vienna seemed to enjoy the 10-minute electronic piece in polite silence.

    Chantal Akerman, From Here, directed by Brazilians Gustavo Beck and Leonardo Luiz Ferreira, consists of a single 62-minute static medium shot, framed by a doorway, of an interview which the Belgian director gave in Rio. The slight distance works, because there is a tension between the slightly ponderous and pretentious unseen interviewer, the more relaxed, amusing Akerman, who lights up a cigarette despite the protestations of her minders, and us, the eavesdropping audience.

    The line between documentary and fiction has never been as blurred, and more and more films relentlessly question the veracity of documentaries and the untruth of fiction. Invernadero, translated literally as Winter House, by the 38-year-old Argentinean novelist and filmmaker Gonzalo Castro, focuses on the celebrated one-armed Mexican author Mario Belatin, whose own experimental work, like the film, skillfully blends reality with fiction. Castro is unusual in that he directs, edits, writes, photographs and sound records his films.

    Still in a serious state of mind, I went expectantly to see The Forgotten Space by film theorists Noel Burch and Allan Sekula. However, although it had some interesting new insights – it condemns the Frank Gehry Guggenheim museum in Bilbao for being built with American blood money and out of touch with the people of the region – it took almost two banal hours to conclude that capitalism exploits the working class, particularly, in this case, seafarers. (It made me think even more kindly of Michael Moore.)

    But the Viennale isn’t all experimentation, minimalism, intellectualism, though that it is what it’s best at. (Vienna itself hits one with Kultur.) There were more mainstream movies (which one could catch elsewhere), the best being Francois Ozon’s pastiche Potiche, a thoroughly enjoyable take on French boulevard comedy, far better than his revisionist views of Agatha Christie (8 Woman) and period melodrama (Angel).

    The standout American indie was Mike Ott’s Littlerock, which managed to bring an engaging freshness to the subject of aimless young people hanging out, drinking, snorting drugs and endlessly partying, in a dreary town in the Californian desert. What energizes the film is that Ott, who never patronizes his characters, takes a subjective position, in which the setting is seen through the eyes of a Japanese girl, newly arrived with her brother, when their car has broken down. In fact, they are on a pilgrimage in the USA, like the Japanese couple in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, but not to a pop music shrine but to somewhere far more meaningful and profound. This acts as a unpredictable epilogue which Ott handles with delicate skill. He also has an exceptional cast headed by the shimmering Okatsuka Atsuko (who co-wrote it) and an original character portrayed with a mixture of insecurity, romantic idealism and chutzpah by Corey Zacharia. So convincing are the performances, the dialogue and the situations, that the moments of contrivance and schematicism, stick out more plainly.

    Ronald Bergan,, 5th November 2010