Bears and Apes and Wolves, Oh My
The choices for this year’s First Look festival at Museum of the Moving Image suggest a veritable movie menagerie, with four animal-themed titles in the mix. Of these, the most obviously exotic is The Summer of Flying Fish, a Chilean coming-of-age tale that uses its titular critters as metaphors for the wasteful excesses of the idle rich. The attempts of a wealthy citizen to rid his private lake of a school of overgrown carp can be read as a salvo in an ongoing, politically charged battle between the country’s nouveau riche and its indignant indigenous population – a conflict that eventually threatens to spill over onto dry, contested land.
In maneuvering from documentaries to fiction features, director Marcela Said stumbles a bit with her narrative, but shows an aptitude for muggy imagery – lots of verdant foliage and smoke on the water. She also gets a fully inhabited lead performance from Francisca Walker as Manena, the affluent, slightly affectless girl who becomes our entry point into these scenes from the class struggle. The film’s formally precise camera style and immersion in an adolescent’s subjectivity has led critics to invoke Lucrecia Martel, a comparison that flatters the younger filmmaker. But it could prove prescient if she builds on her quasi-debut’s barely submerged sense of promise.
At this point, there’s nobody left to compare Denis Côté to except himself. Where the Montreal-based director has previously been likened to everyone from Werner Herzog to Lisandro Alonso, his Berlin-feted Vic + Flo Saw a Bear sends him into his second decade of filmmaking under a banner of his own handmade manufacture—a knight errant of a cinematic realm that’s grown from a mere niche to a veritable kingdom. The superb Pierette Robitaille stars as Vic(toria), a sexagenarian parolee who invades her aged uncle’s sugar shack in the Quebec wilderness and invites her lover Flo(rence) (Romane Bohringer) to live there happily ever—an optimistic set-up that’s thwarted by a formidable combination of internal and external forces.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear
Along with his adventurous spirit, Côté’s great talent is
for regional atmosphere, and Vic + Flo is a uniquely breathable movie: its
portrayal of a physically intimate and emotionally frayed same-sex relationship
is refreshing even when it is depicted as suffocating. Like the director’s
previous All She Wants is Chaos, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear gradually takes on
certain qualities of a thriller, but there’s nothing generic about its plotting
or, especially, its performances, which are uniformly spare and superb. If this
ursine-monikered movie has a true spirit animal, it’s Marie Brassard’s scarily
cherubic interloper Jackie, who belongs on any short list of great contemporary
villainesses; when she sneers at Vic that “people like me don’t exist in real
life,” it’s a taunt that at once solidifies and undermines the parable-like
qualities of Cote’s storytelling.
From the sublime to the ridiculous (and I mean the word as a compliment) we move from Canada to America—more specifically, Grand Rapids—and Joel Potrykus’s Ape. A prize winner at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival, Ape is an ornery little beast that plays like a scratched B-side to Inside Llewyn Davis; a study of a character whose stubborn commitment to his chosen métier makes him a punch line to somebody else’s existential joke. In this case, Trevor (Josha Burge) is actually a comedian, and not a particularly good one; as the film opens, he’s bombing badly in a near-empty nightclub. The fake brick wall behind him feels authentic to the scene but also stands as a symbol of what’s he bumping up against, not the indifference of the comedy establishment but the limits of his own talent.
Potrykus has a talent for communicating ideas through mise-en-scene; an extended shot of Trevor boredly watching television at home finds the character dwarfed by a black-and-white poster of Jerk-era Steve Martin hanging over his bed, less an inspiration than a reminder of just how unlikely his dreams of stardom may be. And yet Ape is not a needling film; as played by Burge—whose big eyes and lean, lanky frame give him the look of some cartoonist’s hasty scribble—he’s an oddly endearing figure whose addled, laid-back speech rhythms belie obsessive-compulsive fixations (he’s a pyromaniac). Ape very deliberately gets stranger and more surreal (and more violent) as it goes along, incorporating certain aspects of the Faust myth and then paying them off in unexpected ways, but it stays just this side of pretentious: its philosophy is ultimately “make ‘em laugh.”
In one of Ape’s more memorable silent-comedy set pieces,
Trevor tangles with a weirdo in a werewolf mask—a suggestive sequence which
prefigures his own climatic sojourn in an animal suit. The lupine presence is
more figurative in Aran Hughes and Christina Koutsopyrou’s To the Wolf, which
was one of the standouts at the Toronto International Film Festival’s recent
City to City programme—which is ironic because it takes place far from that
series’ designated epicenter of Athens. Shot over two years in a tiny, decaying
Greek village with the cooperation and collaboration of its small, aged
population, the film slips casually into the category of what Robert Koehler
calls “the cinema of in between”—a halfway ethnographic comedy about
trickle-down economics. (Alternate title: Land Without Bread, or Anything
"The channel is on strike,” carps one local about the blurry television buzzing in the back of a bar, a one-liner with deeper implications. Like most of the notable films to emerge from Greece in the past half-decade, To the Wolf deals with the country’s financial ruin, albeit obliquely: by focusing on a community already marginalized by their remote location and old-fashioned way of life, Hughes and Koutsopryou wisely satirize the notion of nostalgia (Greece being more equipped than most civilizations to talk about “the good old days”). The static camerawork and patient pacing make To the Wolf a demanding film, and yet it also has the faintly bewitching quality of a fairy tale—one where the Big Bad Wolf seems to have eaten his fill before the cameras ever rolled.