LFF 2016 Day Ten: On Call, The Son of Joseph, By the Time It Gets Dark and The Wedding Ring (all 2016)

Ramping up to the final weekend, I had my first day of four films on Friday 14 October. All were at least interesting, and some were excellent. All four featured their directors doing a Q&A, though time constraints meant I sadly couldn’t stay for the first one (and the one I’d most have wanted to listen to).

La Permanence (On Call, 2016)

La Permanence (On Call) (2016, France, dir. Alice Diop)
There’s a very simple setup to this documentary: a consulting room at a Parisian hospital visited by a stream of refugees seeking medical attention, one of the few places they can receive such care. The doctor on call patiently deals with the people he sees (supported by a psychiatrist), but the team clearly have access to only limited resources (they even run out of prescription pads at one point). The camera films one side of the table or the other, but it’s the faces that dominate, and we see some return in happier circumstances than their original visit, but this is by no means always the case. It’s clear sighted and quietly powerful about the troubles people have experienced, and the further bureaucratic hoops we require them to jump through.

Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph, 2016)

Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) (2016, France/Belgium, dir./wr. Eugène Green, DOP Raphaël O’Byrne)
This latest film is stylistically of a piece with Green’s other work that I’ve seen — which is to say, denaturalised acting, deadpan delivery, frontal framings, aiming for an exaltation of the text over any kind of actorly psychology. If you’re on-board with his project there’s plenty to like here, and a lot that’s quite funny too (my favourite was the utterly self-regarding young author at the start, and Maria de Madeiros’s literary critic tottering into a police standoff clutching a champagne flute). It’s about a young man without a father who is searching for one, manages to loop in a fugitive-on-the-run storyline, and then overlays a Christian allegory as the structuring device. The literary world doesn’t come out looking great, but plenty of the individual shots in the film do.

Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark, 2016)Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark) (2016, Thailand/France/Netherlands/Qatar, dir./wr. Anocha Suwichakornpong, DOP Ming-Kai Leung)
When you structure your film to have the logic of a waking dream or a memory flashback — and in this the film shares a lot of the same power as last year’s Cemetery of Splendour by fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul — it can have the unfortunate effect of lulling a viewer who is watching it at one of those awkward times of the evening into a bit of a doze (I’m talking about me). I therefore had the uneasy feeling of not really knowing what was happening and wondering if there was something crucial I had missed in the few minutes I had my eyes shut, but at length I realised that no, this is just the film, and the effect is entirely intentional. It also points up the absurdity of assigning films star ratings, because it looks like I’ve given it a low score, but actually this is probably the film I’d most like to revisit. It has a tricksy looping structure which replays some scenes with different actors, which seems to present its characters’ stories alongside fragments of their memory, dramatic recreations and even music videos, to further confound any easy narrative understanding. There is, though, an intellect at work, questioning historical representation, the play of memory, the ethics of filmmaking, and any number of other subjects. In short, for all its gently undulating rhythms (the sound design emphasises the low hum of machinery, fans, or blowing wind throughout), it represents some pretty exciting filmmaking.

Zin'naariya! (The Wedding Ring, 2016)

Zin’naariya! (The Wedding Ring) (2016, Niger, dir./wr. Rahmatou Keïta)
Like Laos the other day, Niger is another country you don’t see many films from, given its lack of a film industry, or indeed much in the way of a film culture. So it’s all the more reason to celebrate that not only has a film been made there, it’s directed by a woman, it looks gorgeous, and it was entirely funded by African money. A young woman (played by the director’s daughter) has returned from studying in France, lovelorn over the boyfriend she met there who himself has returned to his homeplace. She retains hopes of marrying him, as her family use whatever means they can to help bring them together — although this largely involves a local mystic who reads the patterns in shells. In truth the story moves along at a fairly unhurried pace, but the actors (not least the lead) do a great job in making the film watchable, and the camera can’t help but find light and colour wherever it looks in this small tightly-knit community. The focus is on the women in the community above all, and their laughter and wisdom keeps the film moving through some slower patches.

La Sapienza (2014)

Established directors with a distinctive style can attract backlash. For example, I like the films of Wes Anderson, but I gather that many do not, and that’s fine and understandable. It may be a reaction to many things, but I suspect primarily it’s the stylisation, the candy box set and production design, and the ever-so-slightly self-consciously stilted line deliveries of the actors. Lacking the widespread acclaim of Anderson, but making films every bit as stylised, is Eugène Green, who also originally hails from the States (New York, to be precise) but lives and works in France. In La Sapienza (translated as “Sapience”, an archaic word for wisdom, here applied specifically to the work of 17th century Italian architect Francesco Borromini), Green uses architecture as, ahem, a structuring conceit for a story of four people.

Going back to the comparison I started out with, it’s not that I think Green and Anderson are comparable in their work, just that this is the first film I’ve seen by Green and I think for those who are unfamiliar with his work (as I imagine most are), you might start with the acting. The enunciation of the actors — particularly Fabrizio Rongione in the lead role of architect Alexandre — is declamatory, and generally delivered while facing directly into the camera. Facial tics and body language are kept to a minimum, which lends a deadpan aspect to much of what Alexandre says (and incidentally makes the film pretty comedic at times, in ways I think are probably intended). His wife Aliénor (played by Christelle Prot, a frequent collaborator with Green) has a softer, more symapthetic mien, though even with her every delivered line of the script is given its space. Soon enough, the respective stories of these two split off from one another, as, after travelling from Paris to Italy, they bump into two young people. Alexandre accompanies architecture student Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) around Italy, as Aliénor stays to look after Goffredo’s ailing sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro).

Every bit as stylised as the acting is the mise en scène. Green prefers very carefully-balanced and symmetrical frontal stagings, usually of two actors side-by-side, or in rigid shot-reverse shot constructions of dialogue scenes. Interspersed are views of buildings, with the camera often panning up towards the sky along a building’s façade as the characters discuss Borromini and his ideas of space and light. However, unlike say a Godard film, the dialogue is not just philosophical treatises delivered stiltedly, though the allusions to classical architects and digressions to appraise various buildings make it all unashamedly high-cultural in its effect. No, this is a film primarily about two characters in their middle-age who find themselves reassessing how they want to live and work, and who are inspired by the younger generation they meet.

If it all seems arid, elitist and rather precious, then at a certain level, it is. Once you allow that, it’s really all rather delightful, warm and funny and witty and even human, despite all appearances. The director pushes the artifice in all its senses, but its building blocks remain the four people.

La Sapienza film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugène Green; Cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne; Starring Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Prot [as “Christelle Prot Landman”], Ludovico Succio, Arianna Nastro; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 15 October 2014.