When I came home from the last screening of the film festival, my bedroom was a wreck. MIFF programs lay scattered about in an unseemly manner—some tattered and adorned with hand-drawn circles and crosses, others still untouched and neatly folded.
Every year is the same for me now. For two and a half weeks over July and August, I mingle with the hordes of people queuing up outside the Forum, spilling out onto Russell St from the laneways adjacent to Greater Union and having a look at how the other half live at Melbourne Central Hoyts. For cinephiles like me, the question isn’t why we choose to sacrifice work hours and social life or spend food money on film tickets—such a process is a given—it is merely to what extent it can be done. The program, the queues, the occasionally crash-prone iPhone app: these are simply part of the yearly ritual.
Perhaps, though, I’m getting a little jaded with age—25 in a few weeks, mein Gott!—for, this year, there were only a couple of films that I loved without qualification: the American comedy-drama Frances Ha and French sexually-explicit thriller Stranger by the Lake. The latter of these was an excellent study in restraint and repetition: day after day at a gay cruising beach marked by swimming, sunbathing, chatting and fucking; a murder mystery creeping in ever so slyly. Frances Ha, on the other hand, sacrificed orderliness for (monochrome) energy, with the episodic narrative shifting through scenes, subplots and locations rapidly. That was the film that I had been most looking forward to at the festival, and it proved worthy; director Noah Baumbach and writer/star Greta Gerwig both doing the best work they’d ever committed to celluloid (or, I dunno, digital).
Those were the standouts, but far from the only films that stayed with me. Viola was a sweet, relatively short Argentinian feature about acting and daydreams; It Felt like Love captured the pain and confusion of adolescence in a surprisingly nuanced manner; and Computer Chess was a nostalgic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at AI and computer programming.
The Act of Killing told the story of the mass killings of communists and ethnic Chinese by the Indonesian military regime in 1965. A brilliantly-conceived documentary, it offered the killers—now treated as national heroes—the opportunity to re-enact their actions on camera. Through these perverse, at times comical psychodramas, a genuine feeling of horror began to seep through.
Towards the end of the film, I looked over at the woman sitting next to me, noticing traces of tears on her cheek. We all cry at the cinema now and then, but this seemed different—somehow lacking in the cathartic quality that process usually entails. These were the tears of Emmanuelle Riva contemplating the destruction of a city in Hiroshima Mon Amour; of someone who had just grasped something about the human capacity for committing atrocities without experiencing it in person. In Indonesia, in the mid-‘60s, family members lay face-down and sobbed into the dirt as their children, lovers and parents were taken away and murdered. It was as if we caught a brief glimpse of that; a barely-reflected image. I left the cinema feeling subdued, troubled. Slowly, as the day went on, the feeling began to dissipate. “Like you, I have struggled with all my might not to forget,” Riva’s character tells her Japanese lover. “Like you, I forgot.”
No matter how harrowing, any fictional narrative after that was always going to be bearable in comparison. So it was with Claire Denis’s Bastards, a gritty revenge thriller of sorts dealing with issues of rape and financial dependency. Not everybody loved the film—it was booed at Cannes, apparently—but I found it surprisingly gentle, treating its sordid subject matter with a kind of detached sadness.
I was a little less impressed by Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo. There’s no doubt that the director of The Science of Sleep and various Björk clips has a great eye for absurdist imagery, but the tragic-romantic story felt a little trite. Were we really supposed to care for these two-dimensional characters, or were we just supposed to sit back and enjoy the crazy visuals? If the latter, then I suppose the film counts as a success, but I felt like I needed more.
Take incestuous love story The Unspeakable Act, for instance: it’s hard to think of a more plainly-shot film—even in the context of the lo-fi American ‘mumblecore’ genre, it looked cheap—but the unconventional narrative and interesting characterisations made it work. What good is a multi-million dollar budget if you can’t have a few good deadpan scenes in a psychoanalyst’s office? I’m not, of course, saying that filmmakers shouldn’t be ambitious—cinema without 2001: A Space Odyssey or Mulholland Drive doesn’t bear thinking about—just that it’s so crucial that the central artistic idea be prioritised above all else. Anything else and you invariably wind up with film as window dressing (like, say, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour—but I digress).
That’s the reason, I think, that the Melbourne International Film Festival is so important. In a world in which so much is driven by capital, the idea of film as art is as unviable as it’s ever been; a kind of amusing bit of idealism that the major studios have long since abandoned. For a little over a fortnight, the Melbourne International Film Festival allows us to hang on to that; to enjoy works of cinema that push the boundaries of the art form, challenge our presumptions and say something meaningful about human life, rather than the sort of instantly-forgotten visual elevator music that dominates the multiplexes. Long may its programs clutter my living space.